The Justice Department is investigating allegations that Uber stole trade secrets related to Alphabet’s self-driving car project, Waymo, according to Bloomberg. Waymo sued Uber in February, claiming the ride-hail service benefited from the pilfered documents. That case is scheduled to go to trial in December, but regardless of the outcome, it looks like Uber will face questions from federal prosecutors as well.
Greyball, Hell... and now Firehouse and Surfcam
US district court judge William Alsup referred the case to the DOJ, two sources told Bloomberg. There are currently five criminal investigations into Uber’s business practices. Federal investigators are also looking into a software tool used to hide its vehicles from law enforcement officials called Greyball. There is a criminal bribery probe, which includes questions of how an ex-Uber official obtained medical records of a woman raped by an Uber driver in India. There are also inquiries into whether Uber violated anti-pricing discrimination laws, as well as the company’s use of software (codenamed “Hell”) to track Lyft drivers.
Uber’s habit of giving cheeky codenames to its questionable projects gains a few more mentions in the Bloomberg report. A software tool called “Firehouse” let Uber charge passengers a fixed, upfront rate, relying partly on computer-generated assumptions of what people traveling on a particular route would be willing to pay. Earlier this year, it was reported that Uber had been charging some passengers differently based on the routes they took. The goal of the pricing scheme is to help entice drivers in those areas to help reduce wait times for passengers.
Another program called Surfcam scraped data published online by competitors to figure out how many drivers were on their systems in real time and where they were. The tool was primarily used on Grab, the main competitor in Southeast Asia. An Uber source expressed concern to Bloomberg that the tool could run afoul of Grab’s terms of service or Singapore’s strict computer-crime laws.
The news of the additional investigations will no doubt add to the already burdensome load being carried by Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who recently succeeded in limiting the influence of ex-CEO Travis Kalanick on Uber’s board of directors. A spokesperson for Uber declined to comment.