Greyball: Uber’s Bad Boy Software for People Like Larry Cantwell

Uber deer cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

This is hard to believe, but it’s very possible that Larry Cantwell, Sylvia Overby, Peter Van Scoyoc and the other members of the East Hampton Town Board can’t hail an Uber.

I know they can’t hail one in East Hampton, because two years ago the Town Board banned Uber because they wouldn’t abide by the Town’s rules. But I’m talking about when they go to Manhattan for a meeting, or to San Francisco to visit family, or even just to Southampton, where Uber is legal. I can just picture it—they get out on the sidewalk, pull out their cell phones, press their Uber app, enter a pickup point and destination. Uber cars are nearby, shown in little black silhouettes on their screens. But when they tap to agree for one to get them, the cars either drive off or just suddenly vanish. No Uber is coming.

The reason they don’t come, it turns out, is because Uber has a special detour inside their company software for officials of towns and cities who have opposed their service or otherwise have made life difficult for them. It’s personal. The New York Times published this story front-page last week. The headline was UBER USES TECH TO DECEIVE AUTHORITIES WORLDWIDE. It says officials from Boston, Las Vegas, South Korea, Australia, China and other places are singled out for this treatment. The list is long. I bet our East Hampton officials are on it.

In fairness to Uber, I should point out that according to the Times, they kind of backed into this business of blackballing public officials. Part of the program they created is called Greyball. It was intended, initially, to target people who are obnoxious to their drivers, or who have damaged their vehicles, or are otherwise using their service improperly. Such individuals are easy to identify. The drivers tell them. You will recall, famously, when Courtney Love in 2015 was in the backseat of an Uber in Paris and she tweeted that protesters—protesting Uber—had surrounded the Uber she was in and were bashing the car with metal bats.

“I’m safer in Baghdad,” she typed.

I don’t know if Courtney Love is on their list, but Uber didn’t want people they think are awful using their service. They made the lists, and when their names or credit cards appeared, for example, they were instantly shunted off to a fake version of the app that looked exactly like the regular app, but just wouldn’t get you a car.

As part of their “violation of terms of service” program, Uber checked it out with their legal team—could they block such people from using their service? They could, their lawyers said.

Uber might have decided to be upfront with this decision to ban these people. They could have put a message on people’s screens. “You are being blocked from using our service. We don’t want your business.” But no. They decided to do this behind everyone’s back. These folks wouldn’t even know. I suspect that the East Hampton officials, if they try to get an Uber, might not even notice what is going on. Just funny that there’s no Uber cars nearby.

If you go to Uber’s site and click to learn how you can be a driver for Uber in the Hamptons, you will read how the service is legal, both pick-up and drop-off, in Southampton, Sagaponack, Hampton Bays and Westhampton Beach, but you can only drop off in East Hampton and Montauk. No picking up anybody. Uber says East Hampton kicked them out. But that’s not exactly the case. East Hampton has forms to fill out to get a license to be a hack driver in that town. You have to have a hack office in the town, be a resident of the town and prove it. You have to be fingerprinted and have no criminal record, a good driving record and pay an annual fee. That’s the way it is. And Uber decided that was too much to ask and walked away. So there is no Uber pickup in East Hampton.

Working in the other towns, you can sometimes find, particularly in summer, places that Uber drivers can park their cars in parking lots overnight. One I know about is behind the Southampton movie theater. The drivers sleep in the cars, they wash up at gas station bathrooms or public washrooms in the morning and get back to driving around, trying to make a buck for another day. And the police don’t bother them.

Uber operates their business as if they are combatants in a war—against cities, towns and village officials, against their competitors, against bad passengers, and even against some of their own drivers.

It was former employees, requesting anonymity, who brought information about the Greyball (a cousin of Blackball, get it? It’s cool!) to The New York Times.

Then there is this video.

The founder and CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, gets into the backseat of Uber’s finest offering, an UberBlack town car. It’s evening. He’s a young guy, as you see in the video, maybe
35 and now with a $70 billion company. Quite impressive. Getting in with him, one on each side, are two knockout young women. The car drives off. The women make inane (in my opinion) conversation, and it seems apparent from the questions they ask that he may have just met them. He is distracted, however. He’s busy with his cell phone.

All this we know because there is a surveillance camera inside this Uber. From the angle at which it videos the passengers, it appears to be attached to the rearview mirror above the windshield. But no one seems to know it’s there. Although, of course, the driver knows. He’s a guy named Fawzi Kamel.

When they get where they are going, the girls get out and Travis leans forward to look out the windshield. Fawzi asks if he could talk to him. Sure, says Travis. How come, Fawzi says, he’s lowered the price paid for the rides? It’s making life difficult for him. We haven’t changed, says Travis. Oh yes you have, Fawzi says and offers numbers. Here’s what we got when you started, now here’s what we get. It’s less. That’s because we have to keep up with the competition, Travis says. There’s lots of things we have to do to keep up with them. We wouldn’t even be here if we hadn’t fought with them. Fawzi says, I’m going bankrupt. I lost $97,000 because of you. Travis cuts him off. He’s had enough of this guy. You know what? Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit. They blame everything in their life on somebody else. Good luck. Good luck to you, Fawzi says, I know you aren’t going to go far.

Somehow, Bloomberg got the video to post. This was all amidst reports about Uber’s image problems and how they’re burning through cash. It hasn’t been a great year.

The day after the video is reported, Travis issues an apology. There is no excuse for it. “To say that I am ashamed is an extreme understatement,” he writes. There is an effort now underway to bring Fawzi around to have a one-on-one conversation with Travis. Don’t know if it ever happens.

I also don’t know what is going on with Uber’s competitors. I’m in the city in the wintertime a good deal and I’ve noticed recently that my software to hail a Lyft or a Juno is all screwed up. The software says they are just 2 minutes away, but then after you agree, they are 12 minutes away. The silhouettes seem to be going around the block the wrong way. Wait a minute. This magazine has been a supporter of East Hampton’s hack driver regulations.

Could it be Uber’s after me? Nah.

Just got a call from Supervisor Larry Cantwell. He’s never used Uber. So if they’re punishing him, it’s not working.

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