For years, Uber systemically scraped data from competing ride-hailing companies all over the world, harvesting information about their technology, drivers, and executives. Uber gathered information from these firms using automated collection systems that ran constantly, amassing millions of records, and sometimes conducted physical surveillance to complement its data collection.
Uber’s scraping efforts were spearheaded by the company’s Marketplace Analytics team, while the Strategic Services Group gathered information for security purposes, Gizmodo learned from three people familiar with the operations of these teams, from court testimony, and from internal Uber documents. Until Uber’s data scraping was discontinued this September in the face of mounting litigation and multiple federal investigations, Marketplace Analytics gathered information on Uber’s overseas competitors in an attempt to advance Uber’s position in those markets. SSG’s mission was to protect employees, executives, and drivers from violence, which sometimes involved tracking protesters and other groups that were considered threatening to Uber. An Uber spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
It’s possible Uber’s data gathering did not violate any laws—much of it occurred internationally, and the data was often collected from publicly-available websites and apps—but the work of Marketplace Analytics and SSG has attracted the attention of federal investigators and the judge presiding over ongoing civil litigation against Uber for theft of trade secrets.
Marketplace Analytics and SSG’s work was dragged into the sunlight in recent weeks as part of Waymo’s lawsuit against Uber, which alleges Uber stole trade secrets from the self-driving car company for use in its own autonomous vehicles. In a pair of letters written earlier this year, Richard Jacobs, a former Uber employee, accused the company of using its competitive intelligence teams to steal trade secrets from Waymo and other companies; those letters became central in Waymo’s lawsuit after they were disclosed to Waymo in late November.
The trial, initially scheduled to begin this month, has been postponed until February to allow Waymo to investigate the claims included in the letters—that members of the Marketplace Analytics and SSG teams used secret servers, devices that couldn’t be traced to Uber, ephemeral messaging services, and physical surveillance to extract secrets from other ride-hailing companies and keep the information hidden from the prying eyes of competitors and the courts.
Uber’s intelligence agency
The Marketplace Analytics team traces its roots to a previous group within Uber that was known as Competitive Intelligence, or COIN. COIN also set up non-attributable servers to store information on competitors, and oversaw Hell, a program Uber used to track the location of Lyft drivers and offer them deals to switch to Uber. By scraping data from Lyft’s app, Uber was able to collect driver ID numbers and therefore track Lyft drivers’ locations. The existence of Hell, and COIN’s role in deploying it, were first reported in April by The Information....