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Report: Uber had a secret tool for thwarting raids

Why doesn't this story surprise us at all?

Apparently, all it took was one SOS message to the San Francisco (US) headquarters. PHOTO FROM PIXABAY

Uber is known for its aggressive expansion style that often seems to clash with the laws and regulations of many countries the company decides to steamroll into, and this has resulted in the ride-sharing giant finding itself in the crosshairs of law enforcement more than once in the past. While most companies would try and cooperate with the authorities when this happens, a recent report by Bloomberg suggests that Uber often did exactly the opposite and actually had a system in place designed to keep its data out of the hands of law officers.

The news service is using a raid by Canada’s tax authorities as an example of how Uber’s secret program, nicknamed “Ripley” after Sigourney Weaver’s character in the Alien movies, used to work: When investigators from the Quebec tax agency raided the office of Uber Technologies in Montreal in May 2015—armed with a search warrant to collect evidence for alleged violations of tax laws—managers at the company apparently knew what to do. They immediately paged a number that not only alerted the headquarters in San Francisco (United States) of the ongoing raid, but also allowed specially trained staff there to quickly and remotely log off every computer in the Canadian office, making the retrieval of the data the investigators had come to collect almost impossible.

Bloomberg further writes that because of this secret remote kill switch, the Canadian tax agents did indeed leave the office empty-handed, and that the system was allegedly also used amid government raids on Uber offices in Amsterdam, Brussels, Hong Kong and Paris during a period spanning from spring 2015 until late 2016. Uber issued a statement on the matter, saying:

“Like every company with offices around the world, we have security procedures in place to protect corporate and customer data. When it comes to government investigations, it’s our policy to cooperate with all valid searches and requests for data.”

They paged a number that allowed specially trained staff in San Francisco to remotely log off every computer in the Canadian office, making the retrieval of the data the investigators had come to collect almost impossible

While there can definitely be legitimate uses for such a kill switch, the company’s history when it comes to less-than-mainstream business practices doesn’t shine a very favorable light on it right now. Not too long ago, it emerged that Uber had created a phony version of its app called “Greyball,” which was designed to prevent regulators and law enforcement agents from booking rides in an attempt to collect evidence for possible breaches of transportation rules. And just two months ago, the company admitted to not having reported a serious data breach when it occurred.

Maybe it is because of stories like these that Uber has been busy throwing PR dollars at publications and influencers in the Philippines in recent months, presumably in an attempt to polish up its slightly scratched image and keep the brand foremost in people’s minds. With the ride-sharing market heating up around here, being trusted by consumers will become ever more important for companies competing for passengers, and only time will tell what effect the conduct of a company is going to have on its commercial success.

Frank Schuengel

Frank is a German e-commerce executive who loves his wife, a Filipina, so much he decided to base himself in Manila. He has interesting thoughts on Philippine motoring. He writes the aptly named ‘Frankly’ column.