Uber’s crisis SOP: hit “kill switch”, which means shut down to deny information

Barely a year after its launch in India, on August 23, 2014, Uber’s Asia manager, Allen Penn, emailed the team here: “Embrace the chaos. It means you are doing something meaningful.

There was “chaos” just over three months later – on December 5, 2014, a A passenger was sexually assaulted in an Uber taxi by his driver in New Delhi.

In his August email titled “Dealing with Regulatory Issues,” Penn explained to his Indian colleagues what now turns out to be standard operating procedure: how Uber officials are to block requests and government letters.

While encouraging the team – “Regardless of what the competition and entrenched interests say, it’s you and Uber that make India better” – he told them how to keep the authorities at bay.

“We will likely have local and national issues in almost every city in India for the remainder of your tenure at Uber… Do not speak to the government or anyone close to the government unless you have specifically discussed with the Jordan (a reference to Jordan Condo, Uber’s head of public policy for Asia)…we’ll usually stall, don’t respond, and often say no to what they want. That’s how we operate and it’s almost always the best. The first quick meetings set us up for failure. Be comfortable with this approach…don’t let it distract you from your mission to dominate the market,” he wrote.

The email is among the Uber files investigated by The Indian Express. These recordings were obtained by The Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with whom The Indian Express has partnered for this investigation.

The New Delhi rape case saw Uber temporarily pulled from the capital’s roads and the ride-hailing service forced, for the first time in any city in the world, to apply for a license to run operations through a subsidiary Indian, not Uber. BV, its international company located in the Netherlands.

Uber then faced a host of regulatory issues with the Reserve Bank of India and government authorities such as service tax, consumer courts and income tax. And it still is.

Internal emails and documents reveal that India was among the countries where Uber rolled out its unique blocking software that company insiders refer to as the “Kill Switch” in internal emails.

The “Kill Switch” was meant to be used to shut down systems in the event of serious regulatory action, such as a tax raid.

To begin with, Uber used software called “Casper” and later “Ripley”.

The data shows 13 cases between 2014 and 2016 when the ‘Kill Switch’ was used in different cities around the world. It was used in Amsterdam, Montreal, Hong Kong, Budapest, Lyon and Paris. Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick personally commissioned its use in Amsterdam in September 2015.

There are emails that show the ‘Kill Switch’ was also to be used during a tax raid on the company’s offices in Brussels in March 2015, but detectives seized staff computers before it was used. can be deployed.

The reference to India appears in confidential emails dated February 10, 2015, two months after the New Delhi rape incident and subsequent ban from his service.

The emails are titled “Uber Belgium/special tax inspectors” and have a background of alleged VAT reporting violations by Uber-Belgium.

In the emails, Uber manager Rob van der Woude details how Uber blocked Indian authorities from accessing his data.

He says: “What we have done in India is that the city team is as cooperative as possible and BV (the company in the Netherlands) takes over. For example, whenever the local team was called in to provide information, we shut them out of the system, making it virtually impossible for them to provide information despite their willingness to do so. At the same time, we continued to order the authorities to speak to BV representatives instead. I don’t know if it works here since they have telco info, but it saved us a few months there. ”

Obviously, “shut them up” was the norm for Uber managers in territories from India to Paris.

After the Brussels fiasco, the company designed a “dawn raid app” and distributed a “dawn raid manual” among its senior employees. A 10-page manual is also part of the data.

In the manual are detailed instructions on how a “raid” should be handled; how phone conversations should be sanitized if regulators bugged phones; how to appoint a raid coordinator; and what categories of data can be shared with Raid Inspectors.

Asked about the frequent use of the “Kill Switch”, Uber’s spokesperson in the United States, Jill Hazelbaker, and the company’s spokesperson in New Delhi replied in the same way: “Uber does not has no “Kill Switch” designed to thwart regulatory investigations all over the world and more since Dara Khosrowshahi became CEO in 2017. On the contrary, authorities regularly make requests for information and we regularly cooperate with these Although every company has software in place to protect their business devices remotely, such software should never have been used to thwart legitimate regulatory actions.

Allen Penn and Rob van der Woude did not respond to questions.

In India, Uber was forced to make a structural transfer of its operations from the Netherlands to an India-based subsidiary, Resourcexpert India Private Limited, while in countries like Belgium it was under pressure from tax authorities to transmit the data of drivers who used Uber Phones.

For example, there is a confidential email from Uber director Filip Nuytemans dated February 10, 2015, about requests for driver data from special tax inspectors. Uber manager says he’s “open to sharing data as part of new regulatory reform, but distributing this data now could lead to all of these 500+ drivers being 1) prosecuted with risk of permanent seizure of their car plus a fine 2) being audited by the tax authorities knowing that most of them are not able to declare under current conditions.

There is also an email – it bears the same date – from Uber’s legal counsel, Zac de Kievit, who stated: “Providing the list of drivers will reduce our offer: it is much easier for the taxman, regulators and police to terrify our offer and oppose it… what is the least bad option here? Drivers prosecuted through criminal proceedings or ourselves?… If we hand over the list of drivers, our goose may be to be cooked.

Following a search of Uber’s offices in Paris the same year, de Kievit was arrested for obstructing justice by cutting off computer access and activating the “Kill Switch”.