Leaked documents show Uber was happy to break law, hide data from police

  • 11/07/2022
Uber's app icon
The company says it made many mistakes during the years covered by the documents. Photo credit: Getty Images

A leak of 124,000 confidential documents has shown just how far ride-sharing app Uber was willing to go to aggressively expand its operations, including acting illegally.

A new report in The Guardian has analysed the documents which suggest the company was willing to break laws, hide data from police and talk with high-profile politicians and oligarchs in private to lobby for its cause.

The files cover the period from 2013 to 2017 when co-founder Travis Kalanick was in charge. He resigned his position in June that year following reports into inappropriate behaviour in the company.

A former employee had accused the company of running a workplace rife with sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

An investigation by former US attorney general Eric Holder into Uber's culture recommended reviewing and reducing Kalanick's role, which prompted an indefinite leave of absence.

The CEO resigned shortly afterwards under pressure to do so from five of the company's largest investors, the New York Times reported at the time.

Leaked messages from the new trove of data showed executives at the company knew they were breaking laws around the world.

One joked they were "pirates", while another said "we're just f***ing illegal", The Guardian reported.

Kalanick even appeared to support the idea of violence, although a spokesperson later denied that.

The former CEO had dismissed concerns that sending Uber drivers to protest in France put them at risk of violence.

"I think it's worth it," he wrote. "Violence guarantee[s] success."

The spokesperson told The Guardian Kalanick had "never suggested that Uber should take advantage of violence at the expense of driver safety".

Another revelation is that now US President Joe Biden, then US vice-president, may have amended a speech at Davos after meeting Kalanick.

Biden was late to the meeting, with Uber's boss texting a colleague: "I've had my people let him know that every minute late he is, is one less minute he will have with me."

Following that meeting, Biden's speech changed to refer to the CEO whose company would give millions of workers "freedom to work as many hours as they wish, manage their own lives as they wish", The Guardian reported.

Elsewhere powerful figures in the likes of Germany, Russia and Italy were offered financial benefits in order to back the company, while academics were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to publish research supporting the company's economic model.

Uber also reportedly developed a "kill switch" mechanism for when an Uber office was raided by local law enforcement.

In such circumstances, executives at the company instructed IT staff to cut off access to the company's data systems, preventing authorities from gathering evidence.

"The leaked files suggest the technique, signed off by Uber's lawyers, was deployed at least 12 times during raids in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, India, Hungary and Romania," The Guardian reported.

According to Kalanick's spokesperson, the protocols were common business practice and "not designed to obstruct justice".

The company has responded to the reporting by saying there had been thousands of stories as well as a television series about Uber's "mistakes prior to 2017".

"Five years ago, those mistakes culminated in one of the most infamous reckonings in the history of corporate America," the company wrote.

"That reckoning led to an enormous amount of public scrutiny, a number of high-profile lawsuits, multiple government investigations, and the termination of several senior executives.

"It's also exactly why Uber hired a new CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, who was tasked with transforming every aspect of how Uber operates." 

Uber says it has moved on from the "era of confrontation" to one of collaboration, including finding common ground with the likes of unions and taxi companies.

"We have not and will not make excuses for past behaviour that is clearly not in line with our present values," it continued.

"Instead, we ask the public to judge us by what we've done over the last five years and what we will do in the years to come."