Local authorities in dozens of cities around the world tried to find and fine Uber drivers for carrying passengers without a license. To mitigate that danger, Uber came up with Greyball, a technology plan to fool them.
When an agent or official opened Uber to hunt drivers, the screen they saw was often fake. Uber had at least a dozen ways to identify those who wanted to kick them out of town: for example, if they were in a police station and app often to observe the drivers or if their personal information was on a public list that indicated they were suspected of killing the company.
For all of these, there was Greyball: a app fictional where the cars that appeared did not exist in reality. Greyball was nothing more than a piece of code at the end of his account and made it useless. The news that something potentially illegal, like Greyball, existed was given in March 2017 by Mike Isaac, a journalist from the New York Times.
The book was created in 2019 from his years of reporting on Uber The Battle for Uber, which is now published in Spanish (Catarata publishing house). Greyball has been used around the world, although it is not clear that it has also reached Spain, said Isaac, speaking to EL PAÍS Retina via video conference from San Francisco.
“They certainly thought about it, but I don’t know if they ended up using it in Spain. There was a global meeting with Greyball managers to share the system with employees around the world. The idea was to use it more widely in many cities. But it is difficult to clarify where they used it. Even within the company it was clandestine. It was risky and possibly illegal, ”he explains.
This internal tool is just one example of the ability of a company like Uber to pull tricks to improve its business. “If you give smart, competitive people an unlimited amount of money, they are going to play James Bond,” says Isaac.
“There was no control over how to behave. The then CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, had no board or mentors to monitor him, ”he adds. Uber hired 100 ex-CIA, FBI and NSA agents to assist with Greyball and other causes around the world.
The program is just an extraordinary example of the extreme freedom that lived in “the valley”, as Isaac puts it, between the bubble of puntcom at the turn of the century and the debacle that coincided with the election of Donald Trump. A decade and a half passed between those two moments when Uber, Facebook, Google or Amazon became the largest companies in the world. First they aroused curiosity, then fascination with their growth, and finally fear of their size and criticism of their disdain for so many social foundations.
Isaac tells in the book how an Uber employee leaked the first clue about the internal Greyball program. It was hidden in a dirty pizzeria in the valley where no one could see them together. The employee asked Isaac something very specific: “If you don’t delete the Uber app from your phone, we won’t see you.”
That fear meant that someone in the company could use the information in Isaac’s account to find out who he had seen. All of Isaac’s sensitive sources, he says, asked him the same thing: If there’s an Uber app, I can’t see you. The implication is serious. “One person told me they had tried to write a forensic history of who he saw or spoke to electronically,” Isaac says. “The feeling is that there were no limits to what they could do and there was no one to say no. Maybe they never had the moral compass to decide what was off limits. Until recently, people inside had free access to internal systems. It reminds you how much access they have to your most intimate moments and how much you trust people not to see them ”.
One against all
In the case of Uber, the original business idea was to improve taxi service and urban transport. Isaac said it wasn’t a bad idea: “For some reason, taxis are not very popular in much of the world. It takes a lot of effort to make Uber the bad guy in this whole story. Uber’s initial struggles made him the ambitious misfit. But there were two things that negatively impacted long-term growth: the founder, Kalanick, and the context.
Isaac’s book is a wonderful summary, full of details and stories, of the rise and fall of the fastest growing company in history (it was estimated to be worth $ 60 billion by the time it turned nine). Uber has its own characteristics, but the way it was perceived, ranging from admiration to skepticism, is history. “People continue to use their inventions more than ever, they are addicted, but now companies are on the defensive and have to solve some of their problems or at least give the impression that they are trying,” Isaac said. Uber was special because of the size of its established rival.
No other company has had as strong an opponent as the municipal laws and taxis. But also or mainly because of the character of the founder. “The culture of a company is determined from the top and very early. Uber is made in the image and likeness of Travis Kalanick. And he’s quite a jerk, in a blatant way too, that over time I’d say he’s got the hang of it, it’s part of who he is. It therefore tended to attract such people, ”Isaac describes. “Uber was ten times worse than most companies in the valley because Travis was demanding too much from people,” he added.
In the book he tells about cases of abuse, drugs, blushing parties in different countries. It wasn’t something limited to the San Francisco headquarters. The character of someone whose sole purpose was to grow at any cost was the hallmark of the time. “One of the questions I’ve always asked myself is whether you have to be an asshole to build a great business,” Isaac says. “Intensity is something all CEOs of these companies share. Also the will to always participate. Kalanick was kind of a nerd: very cerebral, mathematically oriented, sharp, without emotional intelligence, ”he describes. That image eventually drew “ asshole with an MBA, ” in Isaac’s words, to Uber instead of other companies in the industry.
An uncertain course
An Uber employee in the book wonders whether they will eventually become “Amazon on steroids or a new eBay.” Now they are closer to eBay, Isaac thinks. The current CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, is not a figure like Bezos or someone who builds missiles. What they should be concerned about is who they sign, who wants to work. It’s a balance. They don’t want to spend millions on things that are going nowhere. The market asks them to make an immediate profit. “
The New York Times no longer has a regular reporter just for Uber. ‘We don’t cover it the same way. It’s not the same company as it used to be. They don’t make big movements. People are no longer interested in your details. But it is a cautionary tale of what can build this valley, ”he explains. The end of this era has diminished some of the valley’s most entrenched features. Uber was the avatar of the tech bros (uncles techies) culture in Silicon Valley: grow at all costs, break all the rules, go public and become a millionaire.
Now that idea is no longer the main goal. The messianic missions of the companies and their founders have waned. “First they put their heads in the sand and said we didn’t understand. Now we are in a different period. They are starting to realize that platforms can do a lot of bad things too, ”Isaac says. Meanwhile, Kalanick has established a new business of food delivery kitchens, which has barely transcended at this point. “I think he has post-traumatic stress disorder after the coverage he got with Uber for years. Now he wants discretion, ”says Isaac. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea.”