Three years ago, ride-hailing giant Uber came under investigation for a tool called “God View” that allowed employees to track drivers and customers in real-time. Uber has since scaled that ability back, but Jalopnik has learned the company still deploys a revamped version of it, along with other secret internal tools, to target its drivers who also work for competitors.
The objective is to identify those drivers and incentivize them with bonuses or subsidies to remain loyal to Uber over competitors they may also drive for, say, Lyft, according to sources with knowledge of the program who spoke on condition of anonymity about their existence to Jalopnik.
The details were confirmed by one source with knowledge of the program, and partially confirmed by a separate, former employee. Uber didn’t confirm or deny the existence of the tools on the record to Jalopnik.
Uber’s tactics here go beyond what has been previously disclosed about the $70 billion ride-hailing giant, and feels uniquely Uber—secretive and somewhat underhanded. For one thing, this particular use of what is now called Heaven View hasn’t been previously reported, and the tool itself has been cited in an ongoing lawsuit involving one of the company’s former security experts.
It wasn’t immediately clear to what extent the tools are currently being used across the company. Though the tools aren’t ostensibly used to the detriment of drivers, they underscore the lengths to which Uber will go to influence individuals it doesn’t even consider employees, and gain control of markets across the U.S.
It also comes amid a tumultuous time for Uber, as the company has been the subject of numerous controversies in recent weeks, including the revelation that it used a tool called Greyball to specifically target regulators looking into the company.
“It’s no secret that ridesharing is really competitive,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement to Jalopnik. “People have lots of choices between different apps and can switch between them really easily, so it’s in our interest to make Uber the most attractive option. We mainly do that through product features—like enhanced in-app navigation and Instant Pay—but like all companies we also try to understand how our customers use competing services, so we can better serve them.”
One particular scenario described to Jalopnik is tied to when employees use the Uber app. When an Uber employee requests a ride for an Uber driver, the source said, the app prompts them to ask the driver whether or not they drive for a competitor.
“It’s in the normal [Uber] app, just shown to employees,” the former employee said.
Another tool involves having employees text the license plate numbers of vehicles that appears to belong to a competitive driver, the source said. The information is then stored in a company database. The source went on:
Finally, some teams will actually open [Heaven View] on their computer and the Lyft app on their phone and find drivers in the Lyft app who also appear on Heaven in the same location. Those drivers are then tagged as competitive drivers.
“This all has a ‘positive’ effect for the driver since they’re now targeted with incentives and subsidies aimed at keeping them loyal to Uber,” the source said, for instance, with extra bonuses if a certain number of rides were completed. It is not immediately clear what other incentives exist, but Uber does offer guaranteed fares and extra earnings to drivers if they fulfill certain requirements.
The source with knowledge of the effort said the various tools are part of the company’s driver recruitment program, known as Operation SLOG—which, as Uber puts it, stands for “Supplying Long-Term Operations Growth.”
The SLOG effort dates to the fall 2014, when it was revealed that Uber reportedly hired independent contractors to undermine its arch-rival Lyft by recruiting their drivers through various means—for instance, striking up conversation and getting them to sign up for the ride-hailing giant before the ride is complete.
At the time, Uber confirmed Operation SLOG’s existence, but said the tactics were innocuous, at best, and didn’t go nearly as far as what was described in reports. The company said, for instance, that it relied on “brand ambassadors” to recruit at publicized events, or used promotions for riders and drivers to attract more drivers to the company.
To be sure, companies utilize market segmentation tools to better understand their employees and customers—and Lyft, for instance, was accused last summer of using similar SLOG measures. (Lyft didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
And there’s plenty of drivers to go after: it’s well-known that most work for more than one service. One survey suggested as many as two-thirds of drivers work for at least two ride-hailing companies.
The source said Heaven View has a function that specifically allows it to view drivers. The SLOG-ing tools are used only to target drivers for other ride-hailing apps, according to the source, “never taxis.” It’s unclear to what extent that particular tool is currently being used, especially in the aftermath of Greyball.
“Most large cities have enough SLOG data to get what they need right now, the source said, “so SLOG-ing is more prevalent in medium to small cities.”
The Operation SLOG-ing tools disclosed to Jalopnik track with previous revelations about Uber. In 2014, The Verge reported that the company was using independent contractors to attempt to recruit drivers by requesting a ride, and then offering incentives to join before reaching a destination.
The story cited internal documents and emails, which Uber CEO Travis Kalanick confirmed were legitimate, but the company downplayed the story, writing in a blog post that it never uses “marketing tactics that prevent a driver from making their living—and that includes never intentionally canceling rides.”
But the use of Heaven View in Operation SLOG could strike a note for privacy advocates. In 2014, BuzzFeed revealed what was known “God View” tool, which was described by the news outlet as a tool that “shows the location of Uber vehicles and customers who have requested a car.”
Following an investigation by New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, Uber agreed to limit God View access to employees “designated employees with a legitimate business purpose.”
But in December, Ward Spangenberg, a former forensic investigator for Uber who’s suing the company for age discrimination, said thousands of employees at the company could still search Uber’s database for ride information in real-time.
Uber told the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal, which broke the story, that it complies with Schneiderman’s settlement and that extra security measures are in place. And Uber’s chief security officer, Joe Sullivan, told NBC News that Spangenberg was actually fired for abusing security tools—but Spangenberg denied the claim, saying that wasn’t the reasoning he was given for his dismissal. The company said in a statement at the time:
Uber continues to increase our security investments and many of these efforts, like our multi-factor authentication checks and bug bounty program, have been widely reported. We have hundreds of security and privacy experts working around the clock to protect our data. This includes enforcing strict policies and technical controls to limit access to user data to authorized employees solely for purposes of their job responsibilities, and all potential violations are quickly and thoroughly investigated.
It’s absolutely untrue that “all” or “nearly all” employees have access to customer data, with or without approval. And this is based on more than simply the “honor system”: we have built entire systems to implement technical and administrative controls to limit access to customer data to employees who require it to perform their jobs. This could include multiple steps of approval—by managers and the legal team—to ensure there is a legitimate business case for providing access.
But Reveal cited four former Uber security sources who backed up Spangenberg’s account, which was described in a lengthy declaration filed under penalty of perjury.
If accurate, that’d mean—as Spangenberg described it—“all employees to access this information,” including the driver info that’s contained from the tools described here. (A message was left for Spangenberg, who also told Reveal that Uber changed the name of God View to Heaven View.)
“Specifically, I complained that Uber did not have regard for data protection,” Spangenberg stated, adding: “I also reported that Uber’s lack of security regarding its customer data was resulting in Uber employees being able to track high profile politicians, celebrities, and even personal acquaintances of Uber employees, including ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, and ex-spouses.”
“[D]river information, including social security numbers, which were available, again, to all Uber employees without regard to any particular level of employment of security clearance,” he stated in the declaration.
This post has ben updated.