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Uber and “Hell”

Tom Fox | September 10, 2017

Is it true a rose by any other name is a rose? Does a codename n for a software program or indeed corporate project identify nefarious or even criminal intent? These questions and perhaps some others came to the fore of The Man From FCPA when reading reports that federal authorities in New York are now investigating to see if Uber’s internal company program named “Hell” was illegal. The software program “used software technology to interfere illegally with a competitor” Lyft.

While one might be tempted to say Uber’s continuing negative PR run is simply continuing; this matter, however, is a criminal investigation. The Hell program “worked like this: Uber created fake Lyft customer accounts, tricking Lyft’s system into believing prospective customers were seeking rides in various locations around a city. That allowed Uber to see which Lyft drivers were nearby and what prices they were offering for various routes”. This allowed Uber to “glean data on drivers who worked for both companies, and whom Uber could target with cash incentives to get them to leave Lyft”. Moreover, if the program tracked drivers, it could just as easily have tracked Lyft users and allowed Uber to target them for sales offerings or darker initiatives.

There are now multiple (reported) open criminal investigations into three separate projects at Uber which were initiated during the tenure of the prior CEO Travis Kalanick. There is the matter of Uber’s alleged stolen self-driving car trade secrets from Google; the software program Greyball, which was designed to help its drivers evade local transportation regulators; allegations of violations of the FCPA, and now we have Hell. There is also an ongoing federal investigation into Uber’s anti-competitive strategies in New York as well.

Yet another lesson for the compliance professional is the name of projects. A project codenamed “Hell” will probably never be something positive; for your customers, employees, or competitors.