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Image credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters

Uber remotely locked PCs in foreign offices to thwart investigators

It's thanks to a shady program called Ripley, and no one is surprised it exists.
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Amr Dalsh / Reuters

We all know by now that Uber has some shady practices when it comes to law enforcement. Today, Bloomberg reported that the ride-hailing startup has a program called Ripley, which is designed to thwart local police and government investigators that raid Uber's local offices. When officials show up at Uber's offices, company managers were instructed to call a number that pinged Uber headquarters. Employees in San Francisco would then log onto the foreign office's machines remotely and sign out of computers and devices, change passwords and even lock up data in order to ensure that investigators couldn't find what they were looking for.

Uber has used Ripley multiple times in various locations, such as Belgium, Amsterdam and France. The last time it was used is unclear, but insiders told Bloomberg the protocol was definitely utilized in late 2016. While managers were reportedly informed about Ripley, regular employees at foreign offices were not.

The idea for Ripley came about after a raid on Uber's Brussels office in early 2015. There were accusations that the service had been operating without proper licenses, and the courts were able to shut the company down based on what the police found in Uber's offices. Salle Yoo, who was Uber's general counsel at the time (and has since left the company), asked her staff to prepare measures to counter these kinds of raids. The IT department began working on the early stages of Ripley; the company's security team took the program over in 2016.

Uber has the right to protect its trade secrets and ensure that secret company information isn't handed over to just anyone. And people who spoke to Bloomberg made clear that, in some cases, local law enforcement didn't have proper paperwork or were operating under overly broad warrants. In that case, the use of a program like Ripley is justified.

However, the fact is that Uber has flouted local authority again and again in an incredibly shady way, refusing to comply with local regulations and using tools like Greyball to tag known investigators and serve a fake version of the app to thwart possible sting operations. It's not surprising that Ripley exists, knowing that, but the scope and intent of the program is eyebrow raising -- at least, as eyebrow raising as anything can be anymore when it comes to Uber.

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