As Uber Expanded Worldwide, It Had a 'Kill Switch'

'Switch' would block access of investigators to its servers, as revealed in the 'Uber Files'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 11, 2022 6:31 AM CDT
'Uber Files' Reveal Company's Stealthy, Hard-Nose Tactics
An Uber sign is displayed inside a car in this file photo.   (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

They're being called the "Uber Files." The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a nonprofit network of investigative reporters, scoured internal Uber texts, emails, invoices, and other documents to deliver what it called “an unprecedented look into the ways Uber defied taxi laws and upended workers' rights.'' The files reveal the extraordinary lengths the company undertook to establish itself in nearly 30 countries, per the AP. Some highlights:

  • Overview: As Uber aggressively pushed into markets around the world, the ride-sharing service lobbied political leaders to relax labor and taxi laws, used a “kill switch'' to thwart regulators and law enforcement, channeled money through Bermuda and other tax havens, and considered portraying violence against its drivers as a way to gain public sympathy, per the report.
  • Uber responds: In a written statement. Uber spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker acknowledged “mistakes'' in the past and said CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, hired in 2017, had been “tasked with transforming every aspect of how Uber operates. ... When we say Uber is a different company today, we mean it literally: 90% of current Uber employees joined after Dara became CEO.''

  • Pressure: The company's lobbyists—including former aides to President Obama—pressed government officials to drop their investigations, rewrite labor and taxi laws, and relax background checks on drivers, the papers show.
  • Kill switch: The investigation found that Uber used “stealth technology'' to fend off government investigations. The company, for example, used a “kill switch'' that cut access to Uber servers and blocked authorities from grabbing evidence during raids in at least six countries. During a police raid in Amsterdam, the Uber Files reported, former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick personally issued an order: “Please hit the kill switch ASAP ... Access must be shut down in AMS (Amsterdam).''
  • Sympathy: The consortium also reported that Kalanick saw the threat of violence against Uber drivers in France by aggrieved taxi drivers as a way to gain public support. “Violence guarantee(s) success,'' Kalanick texted colleagues. In response, a Kalanick spokesman said the former CEO “never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety.''
  • Tax havens: The Uber Files say the company cut its tax bill by millions of dollars by sending profits through Bermuda and other tax havens, then “sought to deflect attention from its tax liabilities by helping authorities collect taxes from its drivers.''
  • Macron: The papers were first leaked to the Guardian, which shared them with the consortium and has its own report. It notes texts between Kalanick and Emmanuel Macron, "who secretly helped the company in France when he was economy minister, allowing Uber frequent and direct access to him and his staff." Macron is now president. He "appears to have gone to extraordinary lengths to help Uber, even telling the company he had brokered a secret 'deal' with its opponents in the French cabinet."
(More Uber stories.)

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