‘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.

Uber bosses told staff to use ‘kill switch’ during raids to stop police seeing data

Senior executives involved in global operation to thwart law enforcement, leaked files reveal. Senior executives at Uber ordered the use of a “kill switch” to prevent police and regulators from accessing sensitive data during raids on its offices in at least six countries, leaked files reveal. The instructions to block authorities from accessing its IT systems were part of a sophisticated global operation by the Silicon Valley company to thwart law enforcement.

… In a message sent at 3.14pm, apparently after the raid had begun, De Kievit emailed an Uber IT engineer in Denmark, saying: “Please kill access now,” copying in executives including Kalanick and Gore-Coty, who ran Uber’s operations in western Europe. Thirteen minutes later, the technician wrote back, confirming the procedure was “done now”. This approach to what staff called “unexpected visitors” would evolve the following year after a raid in Brussels by police investigating Uber’s use of regular drivers without a cab licence, a service known at the time as “UberPop.”

Uber broke laws, duped police and secretly lobbied governments, leak reveals

More than 124,000 confidential documents leaked to the Guardian; Files expose attempts to lobby Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz and George Osborne; Emmanuel Macron secretly aided Uber lobbying in France, texts reveal; Company used ‘kill switch’ during raids to stop police seeing data; Former Uber CEO told executives ‘violence guarantees success’

Violence guarantees success: how Uber exploited taxi protests

Leak suggests former CEO believed there was an upside to attacks on drivers as firm campaigned for law changes. Uber broke laws, duped police and built secret lobbying operation, leak reveals. According to the Uber files, some at the company appear to have seen an upside in the attacks against drivers. When attacks occurred, Uber moved swiftly to leverage the violence in a campaign to pressure governments to rewrite laws that stymied Uber’s chances of expansion. “We keep the violence narrative going for a few days, before we offer the solution.” — Uber manager.

It was a playbook repeated in Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, but it was perhaps most evident in France. Before dawn in Europe on 29 January, the Uber chief executive, Travis Kalanick, was messaging on how best to respond to the chaos in Paris. “Civil disobedience,” Kalanick fired off in a rapid burst of messages. “Fifteen thousand drivers … 50,000 riders … Peaceful march or sit-in.” Uber’s vice-president for communications, Rachel Whetstone, responded cautiously, noting “just fyi” that Uber’s head of public policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Mark MacGann, was “worried about taxi violence” against Uber drivers.

Uber and Lyft equals more pollution

The efficiencies of ride hailing were supposed to all but end car ownership; instead vehicle sales are on the rise again this year, after a down year in 2020. There is also evidence that Uber and Lyft may actually spur an increase in car sales in cities where they begin operating.

Passengers have largely eschewed pooled rides and public transit in favor of private trips, leading to downtown bottlenecks in cities like San Francisco.

The need for drivers to circle around waiting for or fetching their next passenger, known as deadheading. Deadheading, Lyft and Uber estimated in 2019, is equal to about 40 percent of rideshare miles driven in six American cities. The researchers at Carnegie Mellon estimated that driving without a passenger leads to a roughly 20 percent overall increase in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions compared to trips made by personal vehicles.

The researchers also found that switching from a private car to on-demand rides, like an Uber or Lyft, increased the external costs of a typical trip by 30 to 35 percent, or roughly 35 cents on average, because of the added congestion, collisions and noise from ridesharing services.

Uber and Lyft Can’t Find Drivers Because Gig Work Sucks

You may have noticed recently that an Uber ride is more expensive than it used to be. As ride-hail companies Uber and Lyft hike prices to record heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, much commentary has settled on explaining this as a consequence of a “labor shortage” largely motivated by a lack of proper financial incentives. Drivers, the story goes, saw the new cash bonuses offered by companies to lure workers back as insufficient. Some, perhaps, decided they were not worth the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 or one of its budding variants, while other analyses suggested drivers were content with living on stimulus funds rather than money from driving. At the same time, the firms began curtailing subsidies that kept prices low enough to attract riders and work towards monopoly. Together, this has left us with a sudden and massive spike in ride-hail prices; Gridwise, a ride-hail driver assistance app, estimated that Uber has increased its prices by 79 percent since the second quarter of 2019.

While Uber and Lyft are reportedly thinking about offering new perks such as education, career, and expense programs, analysts admit these don’t strike at core problems with the gig economy that were driving workers away before COVID-19 hit and are making it difficult to attract them now. In conversations with Motherboard, former and current ride-hail drivers pointed to a major factor for not returning: how horrible it is to work for Uber and Lyft. For some workers, this realization came long before the pandemic reared its head, and for others, the crisis hammered it home. Motherboard has changed some drivers’ names or granted them anonymity out of their fear of retaliation.
“If I kept driving, something was going to break,” said Maurice, a former driver in New York who spent four years working for Uber and Lyft before the pandemic. “I already go nights without eating or sleeping. My back hurt, my joints hurt, my neck hurt, I felt like a donkey. Like a slave driving all the time.”

“I’ve been driving for six years. Uber has taken at least 10,000 pounds in commission from me each year! They take 20 percent of my earnings, then offer me 200 pounds,” Ramana Prai, a London-based Uber driver, told Motherboard. “I don’t understand how they can take 60,000 pounds from me, then offer nothing when I’m in need. How can I provide for my partner and two kids with this? My employer has let me down.”

“I woke up every day asking how long I could keep it up, I just didn’t feel like a person,” Yona, who worked for Lyft in California for the past six years until the pandemic, told Motherboard. “I got two kids, my mother, my sister, I couldn’t see them. And I was doing all this for them but I could barely support them, barely supported myself.”

“I was making even less than my sister and I was probably less safe too,” Yona’s sister, Destiny, told Motherboard. “She got out back in the spring, I hopped on and was coming back negative some days. I tried UberEats and DoorDash to see if that was any better, but stopped after a friend was almost robbed on a delivery. Okay, so the options are get covid or get robbed, then guess what: I’m doing none of them.”

Motherboard argues that the degrading working conditions, as well as the poor pay, “are structurally necessary for ride-hail companies. They were necessary to attract and retain customers with artificially low prices, to burn through drivers at high rates that frustrate labor organizing, and bolster the narrative of gig work as temporary, transient, and convenient. It’s no wonder, then, that drivers aren’t coming back.”

Uber Asked Contractor To Allow Video Surveillance In Employee Homes, Bedrooms

Teleperformance, one of the world’s largest call center companies, is reportedly requiring some employees to consent to video monitoring in their homes. Employees in Colombia told NBC News that their new contract granted the company the right to use AI-powered cameras to observe and record their workspaces. The contract also requires employees to share biometric data like fingerprints and photos of themselves, and workers have to agree to share data and images that may include children under 18.

Teleperformance employs over 380,000 people in 83 countries to provide call center services for a range of companies, including Amazon, Apple, and Uber. A company spokesperson told NBC that it is “constantly looking for ways to enhance the Teleperformance Colombia experience for both our employees and our customers, with privacy and respect as key factors in everything we do.” Amazon and Apple said that they did not ask Teleperformance for this extra monitoring, and an Apple spokesperson said the company forbids video monitoring of employees by suppliers. A recent Apple audit reportedly found Teleperformance in compliance with this requirement. But Uber apparently requested the ability to monitor some workers. Uber said it wouldn’t observe the entire workforce, but the company did not specify which employees would be subject to the new policies. The ride sharing company asked for the monitoring of Teleperformance’s remote employees because call center staff have access to customers credit cards and trip details, an Uber spokesperson told NBC News.

‘These People Are Evil’: Drivers Speak Out Against Uber’s New Coronavirus Sick Leave Fund

Countless Uber drivers are now being pushed to the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, transporting humans, food, supplies, and maybe soon Covid-19 testing kits as shelter-in-place rules cause demand for delivery services to spike. Yet despite their exposure to infection, gig workers lack paid sick leave, health benefits, or unemployment insurance because of their status as independent contractors.

Earlier this month, Uber, Lyft, and Amazon drivers protested the exclusion of gig workers from Silicon Valley’s monumental heave to protect itself from the coronavirus. As technology employees go remote, contractors are burdened with extra demands and no additional support. Uber, Lyft, and Amazon eventually agreed to compensate gig workers through ad hoc funds, but OneZero spoke to Uber drivers who say this is hardly a safety net. “I think I’m going to fall through the cracks,” said Kimberly James, a 46-year-old driver for Uber Eats in Atlanta, Georgia. After a series of devastating hardships, including losing her house in a fire, James has come to rely on food delivery platforms like Uber Eats and DoorDash to survive.

In 2012, James was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, and her weekly income of $400 means she cannot afford to get sick. Health officials have warned that the coronavirus is especially dangerous for immunocompromised people, so today James has no choice but to isolate indoors. One-time payouts are based on a person’s average daily earnings for the past six months. Someone making $28.57 per day is eligible for a payment of $400, the equivalent of 14 days of average pay, while someone earning $121.42 per day can receive $1,700, Uber says on its website. To qualify, drivers must have completed one trip in the 30 days before March 6, 2020, when the global program was first announced.

Uber Stopped Its Own Investigators From Reporting Crimes To the Police

The special investigations team inside Uber, which fields complaints from riders and drivers, is not allowed to escalate those issues to law enforcement or file official police reports “even when they get confessions of felonies,” according to The Washington Post. They are also not allowed to advise victims or potential victims of crimes to seek legal counsel, according to the report, which was based on interviews with “more than 20 current and former investigators” who worked at Uber’s investigations unit in Arizona.

The investigators are also allegedly instructed to “first to protect Uber” and make sure it is “not held liable” for any crimes that are committed by people using the company’s ride-hailing platform. In that vein, the investigators told the paper that even the language they use when communicating with alleged victims is carefully worded to avoid the appearance that Uber is taking a side. The investigators also said they’re not supposed to specifically ask alleged perpetrators about claims against them.

Uber Admits It Wants To Take Riders Away From Public Transit

“Uber took down the taxi industry and now it wants a piece of public transit,” reports CNN, in an article shared by dryriver:
For years, as it aggressively entered new markets, Uber has maintained that it is a complement and ally of public transit. But that messaging changed earlier this month, when Uber released its S-1 ahead of its upcoming initial public offering. In the regulatory filing, Uber said its growth depends on better competing with public transportation, which it identifies as a $1 trillion market it can grab a share of over the long-term. Uber, which lost $1.8 billion in 2018, said it offers incentives to drivers to scale up its network to attract riders away from personal vehicles and public transportation.

Transportation experts say that if Uber grabs a big chunk of its target market — 4.4 trillion passenger miles on public transportation in the 63 countries in which it operates — cities would grind to a halt, as there would literally be no space to move on streets….

Uber’s rival Lyft didn’t describe public transportation as a competitor in its S-1. But while the corporate mission may be different, in practice there’s little difference, experts say.

“Try to imagine the island of Manhattan, and everyone taking the subway being in a rideshare. It just doesn’t function….” said Christof Spieler, who teaches transportation at Rice University and wrote the book Trains, Buses, People. “It’s a world in which large cities essentially break down.”

And transportation consultant Jarrett Walker tells CNN that while it may make business sense for Uber and Lyft to pursue this strategy, “it may also be a strategy that’s destroying the world.”

Silicon Valley’s dirty secret: Using a shadow workforce of contract employees to drive profits

As the gig economy grows, the ratio of contract workers to regular employees in corporate America is shifting. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber and other Silicon Valley tech titans now employ thousands of contract workers to do a host of functions — anything from sales and writing code to managing teams and testing products. This year at Google, contract workers outnumbered direct employees for the first time in the company’s 20-year history.

It’s not only in Silicon Valley. The trend is on the rise as public companies look for ways to trim HR costs or hire in-demand skills in a tight labor market. The U.S. jobless rate dropped to 3.7 percent in September, the lowest since 1969, down from 3.9 percent in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some 57.3 million Americans, or 36 percent of the workforce, are now freelancing, according to a 2017 report by Upwork. In San Mateo and Santa Clara counties alone, there are an estimated 39,000 workers who are contracted to tech companies, according to one estimate by University of California Santa Cruz researchers.

Spokespersons at Facebook and Alphabet declined to disclose the number of contract workers they employ. A spokesperson at Alphabet cited two main reasons for hiring contract or temporary workers. One reason is when the company doesn’t have or want to build out expertise in a particular area such as doctors, food service, customer support or shuttle bus drivers. Another reason is a need for temporary workers when there is a sudden spike in workload or to cover for an employee who is on leave.

Half of US Uber drivers make less than $10 an hour after vehicle expenses

Uber lures drivers with the idea of being your own boss and “making great money with your car.” The “great money” part is up for debate.

The median hourly pay with tip for Uber drivers in the U.S. is $14.73, according to a new study conducted by Ridester, a publication that focuses on the ride-hail industry. That figure includes tips but doesn’t account for expenses like insurance, gas and car depreciation incurred while working. Using Ridester’s low-end estimate of $5 per hour in vehicle costs, drivers would bring in $9.73 per hour and potentially much less.

That implies a driver working 40 hours per week would make an annual salary of almost $31,000 before vehicle expenses, and about $20,000 after expenses (but still before taxes). That’s below the poverty threshold for a family of three.

This is important because online “gig economy” jobs, including driving for Uber, are a growing part of the U.S. workforce: About 5 percent of the working population has worked in the gig economy in the past year, up from 2 percent in 2013. So their labor is increasingly tied to overall prosperity. Additionally, these workers are still typically considered contractors, meaning that they aren’t required to receive employer healthcare or other employee benefits.