Sunday, March 05, 2017

Uber's Defeat Device and Denial of Service

Perhaps you already know about Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS). In this post, I'm going to talk about something quite different, which we might call Centralized Denial of Service.

This week we learned that Uber had developed a defeat device called Greyball - a fake Uber app whose purpose was to frustrate investigations by regulators and law enforcement, especially designed for those cities where regulators were suspicious of the Uber model.

In 2014, Erich England, a code enforcement inspector in Portland, Oregon, tried to hail an Uber car downtown in a sting operation against the company. However, Uber recognized that Mr England was a regulator, and cancelled his booking. 

It turns out that Uber had developed algorithms to be suspicious of such people. According to the New York Times, grounds for suspicion included trips to and from law enforcement offices, or credit cards associated with selected public agencies. (Presumably there were a number of false positives generated by excessive suspicion or √úberverdacht.)

But as Adrienne Lafrance points out, if a digital service provider can deny service to regulators (or people it suspects to be regulators), it can also deny service on other grounds. She talks to Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, who observes that
"Greyballing police may primarily raise the concern that Uber is obstructing justice, but Greyballing for other reasons—a bias against Muslims, for instance—would be illegal and discriminatory, and it would be very difficult to make the case it was going on."
One might also imagine Uber trying to discriminate against people with extreme political opinions, and defending this in terms of the safety of their drivers. Or discriminating against people with special needs, such as wheelchair users.

Typically, people who are subject to discrimination have less choice of service providers, and a degraded service overall. But if there is a defacto monopoly, which is of course where Uber wishes to end up in as many cities as possible, then its denial of service is centralized and more extreme. Once you have been banned by Uber, and once Uber has driven all the other forms of public transport out of existence, you have no choice but to walk.




Mike Isaac, How Uber Deceives the Authorities Worldwide (New York Times, 3 March 2017)

Adrienne LaFrance, Uber’s Secret Program Raises Questions About Discrimination (The Atlantic, 3 March 2017)

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