Uber Software Con: Any lessons emitted?

Another transgression. Another chutzpah against law. Another spicy headline.

So what’s new about what you may have been reading about Uber last week? Forget the sex-scandal, the gender-lawsuit, the viral video of misbehaving with a driver, the speculations of CEO stepping down – focus on the headline that might have escaped your eye because it was a tad less-eye-popping; yes, the greyball fiasco.

So, here’s what happened: Uber Technologies Inc. has reportedly agreed to put an end to a software that made fake versions of its app for using in case of government officials or law enforcers or sting operators.

This software, or Greyball, as it is better known as, apparently allowed the company to block users that the company thought of being in violation of its terms of service agreement – but that this list included government officials and enforcement authorities who could ticket drivers or impound cars or do anything that law has all the right and reason to do – that makes this hack all the more intriguing.

There’s more, the software was also smart enough to be able to cancel rides or display cars that weren’t around to dupe any person who wanted to request a car but was not in the ambit of those that the company would preferably accommodate.

It was Portland that raised most of the early fuss (back in 2014 itself) here and a video by a media explained vividly how code officers’ ride requests were getting repeatedly cancelled.

Is this possible? Hell yeah. It’s just an alternative and supposedly-non-functioning version of the usual app. Thanks to the muscle that data from geolocation tracking, credit card info, social media accounts and other profiling bits beef up the app with, the app can actually figure out ‘who’ is hailing a ride to a level of detail that can be used for various reasons.

Now whether these reasons are legitimate, legal or fair depends on the company after all. It can protect drivers when the conditions warrant so, or it can use it to avert law-enforcers or people it doesn’t necessarily like to entertain (that part is scarier, and we will get there in a bit).

But yes, from Boston, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon; to France, Australia, China, South Korea and Italy; it is being speculated that the cheat-trick has been put to use.

If that sounds like a déjà-vu, don’t blame yourself. The landscape of cars and jeeps has been eerily hooked on to software gyps for the last few years.

From the much-dissected and devoured VW emissions’ scandal, to some recent revelations against Audi and Fiat; there is no dearth of gimmicks that allow legal teeth to be extracted with a strong software anaesthesia.

VW had installed software for de-activating pollution controls on as many as 11 million diesel vehicles sold worldwide (it was discovered in 2015 but is being speculated to be in use from 2006 only).

In November 2016 again, California Air Resources Board (CARB) sniffed another such software in automatic transmission Audi. Not alone on this track, Fiat Chrysler Group (as reported by US media) is also looking at a fine of up to $4.6bn thanks to violations in 104,000 vehicles that EPA has spotted.

What do these stealthy software tricks do? Anything: From detecting whether a car’s steering wheel was turned, to switching on a gear-shifting program that whips up less carbon dioxide than in normal road driving; to being alert in case a wheel turns beyond a certain angle – these technology ninjas lurk silently and tweak a car’s emissions so smartly that it knows when it’s a lab test and when it’s an actual road. So now the car can emit as much as it wants in normal conditions but behave discreetly when it knows that someone is applying a legal test.

If a sly software can juice up engine’s performance and vice versa depending on whether it is on the road or in a lab that has massive implications for emissions. Especially, when the car in question is being labelled as a ‘greener’ option than others. While VW had to acknowledge the use of defeat device, it remains to be adjudged whether it was designed purposively.

But there are other questions that still disturb even after these giant auto companies have agreed to pay billions in fines or buy back millions of vehicles.

Don’t we recall how for several months after the allegation, VW made statements that exuded innocence and ignorance in the garb of mechanical and technological problems.

Until 2008 when VW officially admitted to the hand-in-the-cookie-jar to EPA, the reactions from the company were denial-oriented.

But soon it followed that the fraud could have easily been working from 2006, to allow the company in its aggressive strategy in pumping up thin US sales and expand market share with a new hat in the ring: a clean diesel car. Yes, that’s as hypocritical as it can get.

Let’s take a U-turn to Uber. After the ‘Greyball’ came out in media radar, the company has mostly been defending it as something that it needs for driver protection.

Its explanation hints that this technology that is used to hide the standard city app view for individual riders, and allows Uber to show that same rider a different version; has been used for many clean purposes like testing of new features by employees; marketing promotions; fraud prevention; to protect partners from physical harm; and to deter riders using the app in violation of Uber’s terms of service

Joe Sullivan, Chief Security Officer hints of a meek confession this in a post.”  We have started a review of the different ways this technology has been used to date. In addition, we are expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward. Given the way our systems are configured, it will take some time to ensure this prohibition is fully enforced. 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.”

It appears, at least on the surface, that Uber would be investigating the Greyball program.

It also says a lot about the power of public awareness, action and social activism that can bring such much-needed corporate responsibility. Thanks to the viral #DeleteUber social media campaign and media criticism, and NPO activity and papers like the West Virginia University-ICCT study where VW’s fraud was peeled with a simple (and at that time, a not-so-huge question) ‘why are diesel cars in the US supposedly much less polluting than those in Europe?’ – thanks to all this consciousness that corporations continue to watch their backs and take up responsibility that they might otherwise comfortably gloss over.

We remember Uber’s defiance in the case of self-driving pilots without a permit in December and also the reversal of the same stance when it stated it would apply for permits to test its self-driving cars in San Francisco.

We should also remember that it’s not a simple case of duping law, but also of fooling and mistreating users and customers – whether it’s VW or Uber. Can a software allow people to believe they are driving a cleaner car when they are emitting more pollution? Can a software create room for redlining? If Greyball could avoid cops, it could very well avoid just because they were from a certain area or ethnicity or skin colour, right?

There’s another question that hangs in the air. Some EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) activists have rightly challenged the status-quo of automakers and software in this industry being so tightly locked with copyrights that it leaves users helpless if they want to repair or find out what’s inside.

Maybe VW’s cheat-trick could have been unveiled much earlier had the car-maker not blocked car-owners from peeking inside the software.

Maybe app-permissions block and empower the wrong people in case of ride-hailing services too.

Would Grey-ball help us catch those curve-balls?

So many questions, so many lessons.


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