Portland’s Futile War Against Uber

Portland’s Mayor recently sounded off about Uber’s use of clever software to outfox regulators during the city’s pointless battle against ridesharing. Government officials are investigating Uber’s ethics in using a regulator-detection-algorithm known as “Greyball”. Greyball was used to avoid agents out to write up fines against Uber drivers operating in Portland when the service was banned. However, for myself as an average citizen, I am questioning the city’s ethics in keeping a popular and beneficial service away from people that need it. While lofty ideals about safety and ethics are bandied about during the Greyball investigation I find myself thinking that it’s really just about the money. For me, it feels like local government was forcing citizens to live in the past using antiquated technology because it fit better into the government’s tax model. As such, I feel that the government demonstrated poor ethics and Greyball was a reasonable response by Uber.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler Accuses Uber of Dubious Ethics in Greyball Probe
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler Accuses Uber of Dubious Ethics in Greyball Probe

Why is Rideshare Better?

After reading a recent article about City of Portland officials launching an investigation into “illegal activity” by Rideshare mobile apps, my girlfriend and I had a conversation about how companies like Uber and Lyft have revolutionized personal transport and improved the lives of millions of people. My girlfriend told of waiting over an hour for a cab while she was stranded at a house-party where she no longer felt safe. We both also shared the familiar story of being out with a designated driver who we found out had been drinking. Then, we recalled that in the real world it routinely took over an hour to get a cab unless one was downtown. We contrasted these “pre-Uber” experiences with the safety, ease and convenience of quickly and easily getting home with rideshare apps. Those in the dating scene love the additional safety of being able to discreetly order a ride on Uber with much less chance of being noticed. Particularly for women on a bad date, ordering an Uber with a few simple swipes and without tipping off those around you that you plan to leave offers tangible safety benefits over having to make an awkward phone call to a cab that will “take forever” and may never show up. Additionally, parents of teens could easily appreciate the added safety of their young adult being able to swiftly and easily order a ride home if they are somewhere unsafe or if a driver had been drinking. For the public, everything about Uber is better than a cab. Cabs cost more while offering greatly reduced service and customer experience.

Another convenient feature of Rideshare software is its simple fee structure. It’s also very easy to see when the driver will show up using a visual map showing the driver’s progress. Payment is simplified via secure credit card so there’s no need to handle cash, make change or use your card on the spot. Not only this, but ridesharing apps give both the driver and the passenger a rating system to offer feedback so that drivers and passengers are each accountable for their behavior. I could go on indefinitely about the benefits of ridesharing whereas the only true drawbacks are that ridesharing has sidestepped a frustrating local tax and obviated an industry that provided an outdated service that’s no longer very relevant. City officials attempted to keep us in the past because the old system was a profit center for tax revenue.

How Uber Fooled the Govt With Greyball

Apparently, Uber drivers also got innovative employee-only apps including one known as Greyball. Greyball was used to help employees avoid detection by authorities who would issue tickets to Uber drivers working in Portland before the service was legalized. The app used clever software algorithms to help drivers avoid sting operations used to catch drivers offering illegal rides. With Greyball, companies like Uber could continue to offer ridesharing service in Portland and at least partly avoid the threat of fines. According to the allegations, the software worked to some extent and services like Uber and Lyft were able to conduct some activity within the city while flying under the radar. Recent statements from the city have condemned Greyball as unethical and illegal and are threatening Department of Justice action against Rideshare companies. However, I believe that the real crime was that the city banned rideshare to begin with.

How does Greyball Work?

Greyball’s software identified users as potential government agents by a number of different means and weeded out users deemed to have a high probability of being regulators seeking to catch prohibited rideshare activity. These methods included tactics called “Eyeballing” and “Geofencing” but also included more advanced data mining.

  1. Eyeballing: users who would open the app frequently and use its features while only rarely using a ride were flagged for further scrutiny because this action showed a high correlation to government users.
  2. Phone Number Tracking: Uber also had a process wherein they would find out questionable phone numbers being issued by throw-away or other temporary cell-phone carriers. Agents often purchased temporary phones to use in operations and this correlation went into Greyball’s algorithm of sniffing out regulators.
  3. “Geofencing” was another technique where rides ordered at or near a government building were viewed with greater skepticism.

  4. Credit Card Data: In some cases, users’ credit card information would be reviewed to see if the card was controlled by a government entity.
    Social Media Crawls: Greyball would also search users’ profiles on social media to look for signs that the person worked in government or that the profile in question was a fake.

These clever tactics are being held up as “evidence” of Uber’s poor ethics but I would counter that all such information appears to have been legally obtained and the only reason that the city is angry about it is that Uber provided a better service and broke the cabal of taxis and city government.

Ridesharing’s Impact on Taxis

Some may point out that rideshare hurts cab businesses and reduces an income source for the city. And, this is a valid point. However, rideshare is offering people a better product and the employee-drivers for rideshare companies seem (based on my conversations) to be treated better than cab drivers. The internet and smartphone age has hurt certain industries and there’s no way around that fact. But one could also make the similar arguments for keeping the horse and buggy as a primary means of transportation. As an historical aside, let’s all pour out a beverage in memorial of the thousands of equestrian stables and poop scoopers that the automobile put out of business. Okay, now back to reality and the cold hard truth: smartphone ridesharing is better in every way and the old model of taxi-cab-taxation is best left behind in the 20th century.

In the minds of many in the public, cab companies have a bit of a checkered past (pun intended) and it seems somewhat exploitative of drivers that are paid low wages and consumers get less service. Based on conversations with Uber and cab drivers in turn, it appears that Uber drivers have better pay and a higher quality of life. For me and many Portlanders, the real story here is that the city government was raking in cash through a fee-based cab-licensing structure and city officials sought to keep out rideshare so they could keep the taxi-cab monopoly afloat. With Uber, drivers seem to be winning, passengers are winning and the government’s old tax model and outdated companies seem to be the only ones getting squeezed.

In summary, rideshare smartphone apps have revolutionized the industry and have improved the lives of everyone with a cellphone and a credit card who needs a ride somewhere. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s stance is that Uber used dubious ethics with Greyball; but from my perspective the real ethics problem is that Portland’s government tried to prevent its people from using a revolutionary service with huge advantages.