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By: Eric Lieberman
Uber, the ride-sharing startup turned tech conglomerate, has been accused of creating and operating three invasive spy programs in recent months and years, indicating the lengths the company will go to in order to survive and thrive in the ride-hailing market.
Authorities investigated Uber in 2014 for a tool the company reportedly uses called “God View” or “Heaven.”
The software would allow workers (usually at a higher level) to track riders without their permission. The company ultimately agreed to pay a $20,000 penalty and modify its privacy and security practices, after the New York attorney general’s office launched an official investigation. (RELATED: Uber Is Tracking Your Location Even After The Ride Is Over)
A whistleblower announced in December he was suing Uber, his former employer for wrongful termination. In the legal complaint, which was filed almost two years after initial allegations, he accuses the company of continuing to use the “God View” functionality to spy on customers.
“Uber’s lack of security regarding its customer data was resulting in Uber employees being able to track high profile politicians, celebrities, and even personal acquaintances of Uber employees, including ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, and ex-spouses,” Ward Spangenberg, who worked as a forensic investigator for the ride-sharing service, wrote in the court declaration.
Bruce Schneier, a prominent security technologist, called the feature “creepy” in a CNN op-ed.
Another secretive proprietary tool of Uber’s called Greyball would use data gathered from the Uber app to identify and sidestep officials who sought to catch it in the act of providing its service, according to a March report from The New York Times.
The tool, which was originally created and approved in-house, was part of a larger program called VTOS, or “violation of terms of service.” The program would allow the company to detect and evade undercover law enforcement authorities and regulators, as well as pinpointing competitors who were aggressively trying to disrupt its platform.
“This program denies ride requests to users who are violating our terms of service — whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers,” Uber said in a statement, evidently not denying the technology’s existence, according to TheNYT.
Uber allegedly used the elusive methods in cities like Portland, Boston, Las Vegas, and Paris and countries like Australia, China, Italy and South Korea. Such places have at one point imposed rules that restrict, or altogether, ban the ride-sharing services, usually due to the respective officials favoring the local, well-established (and sometimes cozy) taxi companies. (RELATED: Dem Who Tried To Kill Uber Took Bundles Of Money From Taxi Industry [VIDEO])
Uber’s spying programs weren’t exclusive to regulators, law enforcement, officials and the average customer. The company has been using covert software known as “Hell” to spy on drivers using Lyft, its little brother ride-sharing competitor, reports TechCrunch.
The computer program allegedly creates fake Lyft passengers accounts with locations dispersed across a certain area to track as many of the company’s drivers as possible. Some of the data Uber reportedly sought includes the prices of rides, how many drivers were available at a particular point, and who was working for both companies.
The title of “Hell” is likely a contrastive reference to the once-secret feature called “Heaven” or “God View.” (RELATED: Uber Has Suffered So Many Embarrassments, It’s Hard To Keep Track)
While Uber’s surveillance capabilities may not be as comprehensive as certain federal government agencies, the reports of the spying programs show that Uber may more about its customers than many would expect.
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