Local authorities in dozens of cities around the world as well as cities around the world were trying to find and fine Uber drivers for transporting passengers without a license. To lessen that danger, Uber devised Greyball, a technology plan to fool them right on their faces.
When an agent or official opened Uber to hunt down 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 inside a police station and opened and closed the app many times to observe the drivers or if their personal data was on a public list that identified them as suspected of wanting to kill the company.
For all of these there was Greyball: a app fictional where fictional where the cars that appeared did not actually exist. Greyball was nothing more than a piece of code attached to the end of his account and rendered 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.
From his years of covering Uber, the book emerged in 2019 The battle for Uber, which is now published in Spanish (Catarata publishing house). Greyball was used all over the world, although it is not clear that it also reached Spain, according to Isaac, who speaks with EL PAÍS Retina by videoconference from San Francisco.
“They definitely considered 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. It was clandestine even within the company. It was risky and potentially illegal, ”he explains.
This internal tool is just one example of the ability of a company like Uber to play tricks to improve its business. “If you give smart, competitive people an unlimited amount of money, what they’re going to do is play James Bond,” says Isaac.
“There were no controls on how to behave. The then CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, did not have a board or mentors to control him, “he adds. Uber has hired a hundred former CIA, FBI and NSA agents to help with Greyball and other purposes around the world. other purposes all over the world.
The program is just an extraordinary example of the extreme freedom that was lived in “the valley”, as Isaac puts it, between the bubble of dot com at the beginning of the century and the debacle that coincided with the election of Donald Trump. Between those two moments, a decade and a half passed in which Uber, Facebook, Google or Amazon became the largest companies in the world. At first they aroused curiosity, then fascination for their growth and finally fear for their size and criticism for their contempt for so many social foundations.
Isaac tells in the book how an Uber employee leaked the first clue about the Greyball internal program. It was in a dirty pizzeria hidden 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 within 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 that they had tried to do a forensic history of who he was seeing or talking to electronically,” says Isaac. “The feeling is that there were no limits to what they could do and there was no one to tell them no. Perhaps they never had the moral compass to decide what was off limits. People inside had free access to internal systems until recently. It is a reminder of how much access they have to your most intimate moments and how much you are relying on people not to see them ”.
One against all
In the case of Uber, its initial business idea was to improve taxi service and urban transportation. Not a bad idea, according to Isaac: “Taxis, for some reason, are little loved in much of the world. It takes a lot of effort to make Uber the villain in this whole story. ” Uber’s initial battle made him the aspirational maverick. But there were two things that hurt its long-term growth: its founder, Kalanick, and the context.
Isaac’s book is a magnificent summary, full of details and stories, of the rise and fall of the fastest growing company in history (it was valued at € 60 billion by the time it turned nine). Uber has its own characteristics, but the way it has been perceived, going from arousing 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 must solve some of their problems or at least make it appear that they are trying,” argues Isaac. Uber was special because of the scale of its established rival.
No other company had such a potent antagonist as municipal law and taxis. But also, or above all, because of the character of its founder. “The culture of a company is defined from the very top and very early on. Uber was created in the image and likeness of Travis Kalanick. And he’s kind of a jerk, in a blatant way too, that over time I’d say he’s come to grips with 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 demanded too much of people,” he adds.
In the book he tells of cases of abuse, drugs, blushing parties in various countries. It wasn’t something that was limited to headquarters in San Francisco. The character of someone whose only goal 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 a jerk to build a great company,” says Isaac. “Intensity is something that all CEOs of these companies share. Also the will to always be competing. Kalanick was kind of a geek: very cerebral, math oriented, sharp, lacking emotional intelligence, ”he describes. That image ended up attracting “asshole with an MBA,” in Isaac’s words, to Uber rather than other companies in the industry.
An uncertain course
An Uber employee wonders in the book whether they will end up being “Amazon on steroids or a new eBay.” Now they are closer to eBay, Isaac believes. “The current CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, is not a figure like Bezos or someone who builds rockets. What should concern them is who they sign, who wants to work there. It is a balance. They don’t want to spend millions on things that are going nowhere. The market asks them to make a profit at once. “
The New York Times no longer has a permanent reporter just for Uber. “We don’t cover it in the same way. It is not the same company it was. They don’t make huge moves. People are no longer interested in your minutiae. But it is a cautionary tale of what this valley can build, ”he explains. The end of this era has abated some of the most deeply rooted features in the valley. Uber was the avatar of the culture of tech bros (uncles techies) in Silicon Valley: grow at any cost, break all the rules, go public and become millionaires.
Now that idea is no longer the main objective. The messianic missions of the companies and their founders have waned. “At first they put their heads in the sand and said we didn’t get it. Now we are in another period. They are beginning to realize that platforms can also do a lot of bad things, ”says Isaac. Meanwhile, Kalanick has created a new kitchen company for food delivery, which has barely transcended at the moment. “I think he has post-traumatic stress disorder after the coverage he received on Uber for years. Now he wants discretion, ”says Isaac. “I don’t know if it’s a good idea.”