‘Hit the kill switch’: Uber used covert tech to thwart government raids

Twenty minutes after authorities raided Uber’s Amsterdam office in April 2015, Ligea Wells’s computer screen mysteriously went blank. The executive assistant tapped out a text warning her boss of another strange occurrence on an already eventful day.

“hi!” she typed in a message that’s part of a trove of more than 124,000 previously undisclosed Uber records. “My laptop shut down after acting funny.”

But her computer’s behavior was no mystery to some of her superiors.

Uber’s San Francisco-based chief executive, Travis Kalanick, had ordered the computer systems in Amsterdam cut off from Uber’s internal network, making data inaccessible to authorities as they raided its European headquarters, documents show.

“Please hit the kill switch ASAP,” Kalanick had emailed, ordering a subordinate to block the office laptops and other devices from Uber’s internal systems. “Access must be shut down in AMS,” referring to Amsterdam.

Uber’s use of what insiders called the “kill switch” was a brazen example of how the company employed technological tools to prevent authorities from successfully investigating the company’s business practices as it disrupted the global taxi industry, according to the documents.

During this era, as Uber’s valuation was surging past $50 billion, government raids occurred with such frequency that the company distributed a Dawn Raid Manual to employees on how to respond. It ran more than 2,600 words with 66 bullet points. They included “Move the Regulators into a meeting room that does not contain any files” and “Never leave the Regulators alone.”

That document, like the text and email exchanges related to the Amsterdam raid, are part of the Uber Files, an 18.7-gigabyte trove of data obtained by the Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a nonprofit newsroom in Washington that helped lead the project, and dozens of other news organizations, including The Washington Post. The files, spanning 2013 to 2017, include 83,000 emails and other communications, presentations and direct messages.

They show that Uber developed extensive systems to confound official inquiries, going well past what has been known about its efforts to trip up regulators, government inspectors and police. Far from simply developing software to connect drivers and customers seeking rides, Uber leveraged its technological capabilities in many cases to gain a covert edge over authorities.

“Point is more to avoid enforcement,” wrote Thibaud Simphal, then general manager for Uber in France.