Uber is currently facing as many as five criminal probes over various schemes from the company’s earlier years under former-CEO Travis Kalanick, but could face more legal scrutiny thanks to yet another secret program unveiled Thursday by Bloomberg.
The ride-hailing company, well-known for its reputation to flout regulations, had a practice of stymying police raids by using a remote system it created called Ripley. From early 2015 until late 2016, Ripley was deployed as many as two dozen times to thwart police raids in foreign countries and thereby shield evidence from authorities, Bloomberg reports, citing three unnamed people familiar with the program:
The Uber HQ team overseeing Ripley could remotely change passwords and otherwise lock up data on company-owned smartphones, laptops, and desktops as well as shut down the devices. This routine was initially called the unexpected visitor protocol. Employees aware of its existence eventually took to calling it Ripley, after Sigourney Weaver’s flamethrower-wielding hero in the Alien movies. The nickname was inspired by a Ripley line in Aliens, after the acid-blooded extraterrestrials easily best a squad of ground troops. “Nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
Uber and other companies have reason to protect the kind of information it maintains, Bloomberg says, but the issue is that some employees “felt the program slowed investigations that were legally sound in the local offices’ jurisdictions.” And that could present yet another legal problem for the company.
Prosecutors may look at whether Uber obstructed law enforcement in a new light. “It’s a fine line,” says Albert Gidari, director of privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society. “What is going to determine which side of the line you’re on, between obstruction and properly protecting your business, is going to be things like your history, how the government has interacted with you.”
There’s been vague mentions of the program’s existence in the past—a former employee in 2016 detailed an episode from a Montreal police raid that showed how Ripley could work—but the massive scope of the program wasn’t known until Bloomberg’s story.
For its part, Uber told Bloomberg that, similar to “every company with offices around the world, we have security procedures in place to protect corporate and customer data,” Uber said in a statement. “When it comes to government investigations, it’s our policy to cooperate with all valid searches and requests for data.”
In a statement to Jalopnik, an Uber spokesperson described one use of this type of program: “For instance, if an employee loses their laptop, we have the ability to remotely log them out of Uber’s systems to prevent someone else from accessing private user data through that laptop.”
The existence of Ripley comes at a precarious moment for Uber. Later this month, a blockbuster trial between Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, and Uber kicks off. Waymo accused Uber in a lawsuit last year of using stolen tech files to advance its autonomous driving program. (Uber denies the claims.)
The FBI is also investigating Uber for spying on Lyft drivers, and the feds are also looking into Uber’s use of a secret program called Greyball that helped it undermine law enforcement officials investigating the company.