A new report in the New York Times claims that ride-sharing giant Uber used a program prior to being approved to operate in Portland by city officials that allowed drivers to avoid being caught by regulators.
According to the story posted Friday, drivers used a tool called Greyball, which collected information on how users were accessing the Uber app and reviewed the usage and geographic data as a way of avoiding officials in multiple cities trying to stop the service.
The report cites efforts by Portland officials in 2014 trying to catch drivers in sting operations prior to the service getting permission to operate in the city and states the service directed those users to a fake version of the app that gave false information on driver locations.
When the service launched in the city without approval, city officials said they were asking the digital company to simply follow the same regulations as traditional taxi companies.
“It's really frustrating,” Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesperson Dylan Rivera said in December of 2014. “We're just asking them to play by the same rules as everyone else and Uber has asked to come in and play by their own rules and we think that's not only unfair but unsafe.”
The city went so far as to file a lawsuit against Uber in an attempt to have them follow the regulations in place for taxi services. The company finally received city approval for operations in April of 2015, and service legally began late that month.
In a statement sent to FOX 12 late Friday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he was reaching out to other mayors across the country about the use of the Greyball tool.
"While there is no evidence this behavior continued after reaching a settlement in 2014, we take these allegations seriously,” Wheeler said in the statement. “I am very concerned that Uber may have purposefully worked to thwart the City's job to protect the public.”
Wheeler added that he would work with Commissioner Dan Saltzman, the city attorney and the Bureau of Transportation to investigate the issue.
Uber acknowledged it has used Greyball to counter regulators working with the company's opponents to entrap its drivers as part of a larger program called the violation of terms of service or VTOS program that the company said was created to protect the service.
"This program denies ride requests to fraudulent 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 told the Associated Press.
Uber Oregon public affairs manager Jon Issacs told FOX 12 that the VTOS program has “not been active in Portland since Uber reached a regulatory agreement with the city.”
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