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SF district attorney investigating Uber for evading authorities with secret app

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The Uber ride hailing app is seen on a smartphone Thursday, March 9, 2017. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The San Francisco District Attorney’s Office is investigating ride-hail giant Uber’s use of a once-secret technology tool used to evade local authorities, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

The potential use of that tool in San Francisco — called “Greyball” — was called an “obstruction of justice” by San Francisco officials in public meetings this week.

Greyball was revealed by a New York Times investigation published March 3, when four previous and current Uber employees confirmed Uber created it to evade local authorities across the world.

From Boston to Paris, and Australia to South Korea, Greyball was used to identify authorities, like police, as they tried to track and clamp down on potentially illegal activities by Uber.

In 2014 when Uber was not yet legal in Portland, Ore., police attempted a sting operation to hail an Uber car downtown. The police were thwarted by Uber’s app, Greyball, which had tagged the police’s phones in their system and showed them a “fake version” of the Uber app, according to the New York Times, and even showed them “ghost cars” to help drivers evade capture.

The revelation of the app prompted San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin to introduce a resolution at the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to prompt District Attorney George Gascon to investigate Uber for potential “obstruction of justice.”

“This is a company that is so consumed with dominating world markets that they literally developed technology to help their drivers break the law — including the top five driver violations that lead to pedestrian fatalities,” Peskin told the Examiner. “I think it appears to be obstruction of justice — let’s see if the District Attorney agrees with me.”

In California, Uber and similar companies are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission.

When the Examiner asked the District Attorney’s Office if they would be spurred to investigate Uber by Peskin’s resolution, spokesperson Max Szabo said an investigation — which was previously unannounced — had already begun.

“Our office had opened an investigation prior to the introduction of this resolution,” Szabo told the Examiner, but could not confirm further details.

Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment. On Wednesday, the company told multiple news outlets it will now prohibit employees from utilizing the Greyball app, and that the company would internally review how the technology has been used.

The news comes as Uber suffered repeated public controversies in the past few months, including allegations of rampant sexism in Uber’s management and an Uber driver revealing video of CEO Travis Kalanick yelling at him in his vehicle.

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