It was a trick as audacious as it was ingenious. When police or regulators opened the Uber app, they would see exactly what the public saw: dozens of cars crawling around the city, waiting to be summoned.
But there was one crucial difference: these cars were fake.
Uber had built a dummy version of its own app, a secret tool known as Greyball, designed to throw regulators off the scent and help its unlicensed cab drivers evade the law.
While the existence of the tool was later revealed amid great controversy, the precise way in which it was used and the list of countries where Uber deployed it to fool the authorities – alongside other techniques – has remained a closely held secret. Uber said it stopped using the tool in 2017.
Now the Uber files, a cache of confidential documents leaked to the Guardian, can reveal how Uber monitored, outwitted and evaded police and regulators across Europe – with the full knowledge of executives including Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, who now runs the company’s food delivery service, Uber Eats.
Legal experts have told the Guardian that the company’s actions are likely to have breached data protection laws.
Uber’s rapid growth in Europe was helped by tools such as Greyball, which documents reveal was used in countries including Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Denmark.
Instructions for using Greyball appeared in a 2015 internal Uber presentation documenting the company’s experience in Brussels, where the authorities had impounded cars, costing the company €6,000 for each incident. The slideshow, marked “war stories”, was a blueprint for how Uber could stop the authorities from identifying its cars.
The playbook advised staff to check “eyeballs”, code for people viewing the app, and cross-check users’ details with locations such as police stations. Staff were also advised to smoke out “suspicious users” by other means.
In one email in October 2014, Gore-Coty, then Uber’s western Europe head, said its then chief executive, Travis Kalanick, wanted staff to “access cardholder details”, apparently to identify users involved in enforcement.
They could then be “greyballed”, or added to a list of probable regulators trying to order cabs to gather evidence or impound vehicles. Uber would ensure such people were shown a “fake view” of the app, featuring phantom cars that never arrived.
As well as singling out individuals, Uber could digitally rope off entire locations, a tactic known as “geofencing”, ensuring that everyone within that zone would be shown the fake view.
After Danish transport authorities launched an investigation into Uber in January 2015, Uber’s European legal director, Zac de Kievit suggested the company could avoid enforcement by “managing our technology … to stop cops/taxis from ordering rides”.
The following day, a Danish employee emailed Jo Bertram, then the company’s British head of northern Europe, outlining a plan to erect “blackout geofences around main police stations”.
The use of Greyball in the Netherlands received a personal seal of approval from Kalanick. In December 2014, after a senior staff member in Amsterdam outlined plans to combat enforcement with “tightened” use of the software, Kalanick responded: “Great response and plan moving forward.”
A spokesperson for Kalanick said he never approved the use of Greyball for any “illegal purpose” and had not authorised “any actions or programs” that would obstruct justice in any country.
Kalanick left the company in 2017 but Gore-Coty still sits on its 11-strong global executive team, overseeing Uber Eats, the food delivery arm that is increasingly Uber’s profit engine.
Gore-Coty discussed the benefits of Greyball in an email sent to colleagues in 2014 that included a section entitled “fighting enforcement”, which he said was crucial to Uber’s “ability to scale the business”.
The Uber files also reveal how in 2015, staff in Brussels tried to obtain inside information on sting operations by regulators, signing up relatives and friends, under fake names, as “mystery shoppers” for a recruitment agency authorities had hired specifically to help catch unlicensed cars.
Gore-Coty, who emails show was involved in the plan, advised using another controversial Uber surveillance tool, known as Heaven or God View, to thwart the sting. It allowed Uber to track the real-time movements of any customer. Gore-Coty told staff to “monitor Heaven live every time there’s a raid planned, and sometimes make them feel they are getting somewhere (ie if you see them ordering a driver, speak to the driver and ask him to do circles, to call rider saying he’s blocked in traffic etc instead of cancelling right away)”.
Uber promised to limit employee access to God View when the programme came under fire in the US in 2014.
The leaked data reveals staff discussing having used Greyball software to evade enforcement in several other countries, including Russia and Bulgaria. It was also used to avoid its drivers being subjected to violence from traditional taxi drivers in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Uber said it had cooperated with all known investigations into the use of Greyball and similar tools and that all such investigations were closed or no longer active, “with no findings of wrongdoing”.
Uber’s use of Greyball was among the factors that led to its licence to operate in London being suspended in 2017. Its licence was restored with conditions attached, including that it promised to notify Transport for London (TfL) of occasions on which staff in its London office had been aware that Greyball was being used. Uber said it had done this.
An Uber spokesperson said: “Greyball was … considered in depth as part of our licence appeal to the magistrates court in 2018. At that appeal, the court ultimately found Uber to be a fit and proper operator. Greyball was never misused in the UK, and external law firms conducted investigations into the potential misuse of Greyball in other countries, as required by TfL. In 2022, TfL itself found Uber to be a ‘fit and proper’ operator and granted a 30-month licence to operate in London.”
They added: “We stopped using these tools in 2017 when Dara Khosrowshahi became CEO and, as we have said many times, they should never have been used. Today, we have stringent privacy and security policies in place to protect user data, and we appropriately handle any and all regulatory requests.”
It said it could not find evidence that staff gathered users’ cardholder details to identify people to Greyball.
A spokesperson for Kalanick said Greyball was designed to protect Uber drivers from assault and harassment by taxi drivers, adding that he had never authorised or directed it to be used for any illegal purpose. “Notably, neither Mr Kalanick nor anyone else at Uber has ever been accused of or charged with any offence related to Greyball by any enforcement agency,” she said.
Gore-Coty said that at the time Greyball was used he was “young and inexperienced and too often took direction from superiors with questionable ethics”. He added: “While I believe just as deeply in Uber’s potential to create positive change as I did on day one, I regret some of the tactics used to get regulatory reform for ride-sharing in the early days.”
He said he had discussed obtaining cardholder details but did not know if the plan had been implemented and was not involved if it was.
A spokesperson for Bertram said: “These claims relate to global Uber policies that were discontinued five years ago or to interactions with the authorities that occurred after Jo left the business. They were examined comprehensively by regulators and in legal proceedings at the time.” De Kievit did not return requests for comment.