Uber has used a program called “Ripley” to thwart law enforcement efforts, according to reports, and they have done so many times.
In one example, an investigation into tax law violations in May 2015 led the Quebec tax authority to Uber Technologies Inc.’s office in Montreal. As investigators descended, managers allegedly alerted specially trained staff at company headquarters in San Francisco, per company training techniques, allowing the San Fransisco staff to take measures meant to thwart police.
According to a new report from Bloomberg Businessweek, San Francisco staffers moved quickly and “remotely logged off every computer in the Montreal office, making it practically impossible for the authorities to retrieve the company records they’d obtained a warrant to collect. The investigators left without any evidence.”
The report indicates that Uber has a “reputation for flouting local labor laws and taxi rules” which has made it a “target for law enforcement agencies around the world.”
“Like every company with offices around the world, we have security procedures in place to protect corporate and customer data,” Uber said in a statement. “When it comes to government investigations, it’s our policy to cooperate with all valid searches and requests for data.”
That’s where this remote system, called Ripley, comes in. From spring 2015 until late 2016, Uber routinely used Ripley to thwart police raids in foreign countries, say three people with knowledge of the system. Allusions to its nature can be found in a smattering of court filings, but its details, scope, and origin haven’t been previously reported.
The Uber HQ team overseeing Ripley could remotely change passwords and otherwise lock up data on company-owned smartphones, laptops, and desktops as well as shut down the devices. This routine was initially called the unexpected visitor protocol. Employees aware of its existence eventually took to calling it Ripley, after Sigourney Weaver’s flamethrower-wielding hero in the Alien movies. The nickname was inspired by a Ripley line in Aliens, after the acid-blooded extraterrestrials easily best a squad of ground troops. “Nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”
Ripley … was used regularly—at least two dozen times, the people with knowledge of the system say—and … some employees involved say they felt the program slowed investigations that were legally sound in the local offices’ jurisdictions. “Obstruction of justice definitions vary widely by country,” says Ryan Calo, a cyberlaw professor at the University of Washington. “What’s clear is that Uber maintained a general pattern of legal arbitrage.”
About a year after the failed Montreal raid, the judge in the Quebec tax authority’s lawsuit against Uber wrote that “Uber wanted to shield evidence of its illegal activities” and that the company’s actions in the raid reflected “all the characteristics of an attempt to obstruct justice.” Uber told the court it never deleted its files. It cooperated with a second search warrant that explicitly covered the files and agreed to collect provincial taxes for each ride.
According to three unidentified sources “with knowledge of the program,” Ripley’s use is justified when police outside the U.S. don’t have warrants or when they initiate “fishing expeditions.”