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Uber to stop using ‘greyball’ tool to block officials’ rides

Uber has pledged to end the use of its “greyball” system for blocking officials from booking cars with its app — less than a week after the tool was made public.

An investigation into its employees’ handling of the tool, which Uber has insisted is fully legal and has other uses, follows several inquiries from regulators about the technology.

Last week’s revelation that Uber offices around the world engage in “greyballing”, first disclosed by the New York Times, is one of a series of contentious issues to flare up at the company over the past month, including allegations of sexual harassment to an embarrassing video of chief executive Travis Kalanick arguing with a limo driver.

Earlier this week, Uber said it would hire a new chief operating officer to work alongside Mr Kalanick, creating a new position similar to that occupied by Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook since 2008.

As Uber continues to try to quell the simmering outrage that has caused thousands of customers to delete its app, the company said on Wednesday that it has begun to review how its “greyball” system is used by its employees around the world.

For years, the tool has been used to automatically cancel rides requested by users identified as regulatory officials or competitors, or anyone who Uber staffers believed were “violating our terms of service” by disrupting its operations or engaging in “secret stings meant to entrap drivers” in areas where the regulations surrounding car-booking apps was unclear.

“We are expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward,” Joe Sullivan, Uber’s chief security officer, said. “Given the way our systems are configured, it will take some time to ensure this prohibition is fully enforced.”

Mr Sullivan said “greyballing” had been used for “many purposes”, ranging from testing new features and marketing promotions to fraud prevention. Uber still intends to use the tool for those other services.

“We have started a review of the different ways this technology has been used to date,” he said.

To make “greyball” effective, Uber employees researched police officers, local regulators and rivals in each new market, and added them to the greyball list.

“We’ve had a number of organisations reach out for information and we will be working to respond to their inquiries once we have finished our review,” Mr Sullivan added, referring to local officials asking if the tool had been used in their city.

An Uber spokesperson would not comment on whether any regulators had questioned the legality of the greyball system. A spokesman for the mayor of Portland, Oregon, where Uber employed the tool, said last week its use was “very disturbing”, while the Massachusetts attorney-general is looking into the matter.

The latest chapter in Uber’s controversies came on the same day that another key executive departed. Gary Marcus, who joined Uber four months ago to lead its new AI Labs, said in a Facebook post he was leaving his full-time role to become a “special advisor”. “Great news — I am headed back to my family in New York!” Mr Marcus wrote on Facebook.

Two senior executives, its heads of engineering and product, also left the company last week. Recruiters and rival companies have told the Financial Times that they have seen an increase in job applications from Uber employees considering opportunities elsewhere in the wake of its recent scandals.

Via FT