Uber just got caught in a seriously creepy scandal

Uber — the biggest ride-sharing app in the world — was apparently spying on current and former customers for years.

As a lengthy profile by the New York Times explained, 40-year-old Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was confronted in 2015 by Apple CEO Tim Cook for violating Apple’s privacy policy for apps. Apparently, the Uber app was tracking users through surreptitiously placed software, even on phones where users had previously deleted the app. Cook invited Kalanick to Apple’s headquarters in Silicon Valley to demand he remove the software from the app, or else risk having the app blacklisted by Apple.

[W]hen Mr. Kalanick arrived at the midafternoon meeting sporting his favorite pair of bright red sneakers and hot-pink socks, Mr. Cook was prepared. “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Mr. Cook said in his calm, Southern tone. Stop the trickery, Mr. Cook then demanded, or Uber’s app would be kicked out of Apple’s App Store.

For Mr. Kalanick, the moment was fraught with tension. If Uber’s app was yanked from the App Store, it would lose access to millions of iPhone customers — essentially destroying the ride-hailing company’s business. So Mr. Kalanick acceded.

Apparently, Uber was using a program called Greyball to track users who may have been elected officials or part of law enforcement in an effort to track down who was trying to crack down on the controversial app for circumventing regulations normally placed on traditional taxicab companies.

The Times reported in March that in Portland, Oregon, Greyball correctly identified city officials attempting to use the app to call for a ride as part of a sting operation, and that the app deceived those officials by showing decoy driver dots on the map users can watch to see how close their ride is. Other drivers abruptly cancelled on the “Greyballed” official.

Uber’s latest spying scandal is not their first — in 2014, a top Uber executive suggested that the company track journalists critical of the company’s practices by spending $1 million to hire journalists and researchers to publish critics’ personal dirt. Uber Senior Vice President Emil Michael later apologized for making the remarks, believing they were part of an off-the-record conversation.

Kevin Wallace is a journalist with five years’ experience in print and digital media, and covers politics, media, and culture for the Resistance Report. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida.