Bull Session

Designing Deception

March 9, 2017          

Episode Summary

On The Digital Life this week, we discuss deceptive software in light of the recent revelations that Uber used its Greyball application to evade and thwart municipal officials nationwide, who were looking to regulate or otherwise monitor the service. This has a similar flavor to the Volkswagen story from last year, in which the company installed special software in its diesel powered cars to specifically reduce emissions during testing by authorities. What are the ways in which consumers now need to be aware of these deceptive practices? And how should we navigate the marketplace?


How Uber Deceives the Authorities Worldwide

Welcome to Episode 197 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett. With me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Greetings, listeners.
On this episode, Dirk, we’re going to dig into some of the deceptive software that has recently come to light as a result of revelations that our friends or our … maybe friends isn’t the right word, but the folks at Uber used and it’s this application called Greyball, which allowed them to evade and thwart various municipal officials across the nation, these different cities where Uber was looking to do business or was doing business without all the blessings from said authorities who were looking to regulate and otherwise monitor Uber and keep them in line. This application allowed Uber to create what amounted to ghost vehicles or just vehicles that did not exist and placed them on the Uber map whenever one of these officials would get on the app and try to hail a ride. This is how Uber managed to avoid having officials snag them in a sting operation and regulate the service.
This story reminded me an awful lot of, at least not in the exact elements, but in tone and the framing of it reminded me an awful lot of the Volkswagen debacle that we discussed on the show last year where the folks at Volkswagen were interested in circumventing some environmental regulations and created a bit of software that basically lowered the emissions of their diesel engine cars while they were undergoing these testing regimens. Then immediately, the software would switch off once the car was under normal operating circumstances and the emissions would be vastly different, right? They engineered it to pass when it mattered under these tests. Otherwise, these engines were failing, were basically not up to the environmental standards.
In each of these cases, and I think we’re starting to see more and more of this, there is this element of specificity and automation around what I would call questionable corporate actions where software has become a tool that’s very specifically targeted to deceive authorities. If it’s not blatantly illegal, then at least it is skirting the law in such a way that it at least feels dirty to me. It’s interesting because this is a side of the digital market that we don’t always consider, but that’s there, which is in line with the way human beings use tools. We don’t always use them in a way that is upfront and honest. We also use our various tools to do some shady things.
I’m going to stop right there. I have a lot more to dig into, but based on … Yeah, we’ll have a fun conversation, but based on those two examples, Dirk, what are your impressions and how does this reflect … ? There’s a design and development process that goes around creating these pieces of software. I can’t imagine designers and developers going, “Oh, yeah, this sounds like a great project, Uber products development manager or Volkswagen engineering team. Yeah, let’s do this. Here are our product specs. Let’s circumvent the EPA test.”
Yeah. I’d like to talk about this story from three perspectives and in this order, from an Uber perspective, from a law perspective and then, from a software perspective. From an Uber perspective, look, for years now on the show, we periodically talk about Uber and every time we do, it’s to say that they’re an immoral mess of a company. This story is coming out just a couple of weeks on the heels of Susan Fowler, an engineer at Uber writing in really detailed language about sexual harassments and institutional ignoring of the same from a HR department, even from women in an HR department. That was followed up, at least one other account that I’ve read, maybe even more from other females who work there with similar stories.
We’ve talked about Uber being the fraternity house of shit lords for a long time and this new sexual harassment stuff, the CEO in the news for berating and lambasting one of his drivers, and now this story. Regardless of where all the rest of this conversation goes, from my perspective, Uber are sewer rats as far as morality goes. I don’t know if there’s anything you want to add to that before we pivot to talking about the law.
Yeah. I don’t know that anything at least that I’ve seen is defensible from the corporate side of Uber. I will say that the experience of ride sharing in a general way, meaning being able to pull up an app and engage a driver rather rapidly and to your specific location where in just a few seconds, you can have a ride wherever you need to go and that might be with a nice Town Car or you can select to share a ride or have a ride with a regular vehicle driven by a person who’s doing that as a side job, I find that experience across that industry to be for the most part pretty nice and sometimes even borderline magical like if you’re in a real fix and you need a ride quick.
For all their faults, Uber really opened up that business and made it more mainstream and there’s plenty of competitors, of course, Lift being one of them and there’s a bunch of others in the Boston area now, but it’s interesting to me that in the development of this, what I would say is a pretty agreeable green friendly, environmentally friendly industry where we’re taking up slack capacity in transportation and using it, there’s also just this business level nastiness that there really is no excuse for. I have to for myself just separate the services or the service industry that’s grown up around this from the company, Uber itself because they’re two different things.
Yeah. I think Uber from the standpoint of their morality, as I think about honorable organizations, that’s very black and white. Uber is where Uber is. When we move into the legal side of things, that’s where it starts to get more gray for me and it’s from a few different perspectives. Excuse me, I have a cold so, I apologize in advance for my speech today. Number one has to do with legislation and regulation. One of the things in the case of ride sharing that I have been exhilarated by is the fact that it’s coming in and attacking a tightly regulated industry.
I don’t even know what to call the industry, but the taxi cab industry. That’s not an industry, but however we would term that, this is something that has been used in very corrupt ways in a number of different municipalities and I think, and I’m not necessarily conflating corruption with this story I’m going to tell, but I read that in New York City, people will pay $1 million for a taxi badge. They’re so hard to get. The way that it’s regulated is so onerous that you’ll have people who have to pay $1 million to get a badge to be able to be a taxi driver. It’s bad shit crazy and it’s everything that’s wrong with the law. It’s everything that’s wrong with regulation, big overbearing systems, overbearing systems that can be manipulated, that can be used to help some and penalize others.
As ride sharing came to be a thing, my pirate spirit was exhilarated by that because I don’t want to follow the crappy shitty rules around how taxi cabs and traditional analog services of this type work. I want something that’s working at digital speed. I want something that’s working in a modern lightweight agile way. Ride sharing services, of which Uber is the predominant one, accomplished that. Forgetting Uber’s many issues, I am sympathetic to companies that are skirting the law that is protecting other aspects of the law that are defying common sense and sensibility and exist as these onerous awful archaic systems. I’m just sympathetic to that.
Because it’s Uber, of course, right away, it’s like, “Oh, boy, here they go again,” but from more of a legal perspective of how do I feel about this kind of a company, a ride sharing company using this kind of technology to avoid getting held down by a legal system that’s trying to propagate a horribly outdated and archaic garbage infrastructure protecting vested interests into this other system? Look, I don’t know, I don’t know how I feel about it. It’s gray.
What is the law? The law oftentimes is trying to cater to the lowest common denominator. One of the challenges with the law is that what is the law that matters or what is the law that doesn’t is blurry. I know on one extreme, if I’m going to go and kill someone that unless I get away with it somehow, that I’m going to go to prison and I should go to prison. The law tells me that. The social reflectors around me tell me that. My common sense tells me that. On the other hand, it’s the law that I drive 55 miles per hour on the highway. There are signs to that effect. The police have the right to pull me over and ticket me if I don’t, but myself and all the people around me are going 70. If we see a cop, everybody jams on the breaks and there’s a dangerous moment created and then, we get away from the cop and we continue on.
That’s an example of a law that it’s on the books, but the social reaction to it, how society interacts with the law is in total defiance of it and the punishments are questionable. There’s many times I’m over the speed limit, 5 to 10 or even 15 miles per hour. I don’t get pulled over. Nothing happens. Excuse me. The law as this gigantic umbrella covers this huge range of things, some of which obviously are bad and should be punished and penalized, others of which are ignored and they might be the law, but we’re all rolling our eyes.
Back when I was in my early 20s and I had that early 20s immaturity, I remember buying a book on the dollar bin at Barnes and Noble or one of those other old defunct bookstores, there was Loony Sex Laws. As you went through it, it was just ridiculous how each state in the country, there’s all of these different things that people do in their normal sexual lives that could have you imprisoned. Those laws are on the books, but again, people don’t follow it and nobody’s getting arrested, and if they are getting arrested, it’s in these weird situations where it’s the law’s being abused anyway to penalize someone because they fall into a minority group or to penalize someone because you’re friends with the sheriff and you want the boyfriend of your daughter to take a hit, right. It’s not punished and enforced in any reality.
The point I want to make here in this sprawling, rambling diatribe is that the law is not clear. The law ranges from being very clear and obvious and correct and socially supported to being ludicrous and ridiculous and insane. I think the laws around the regulation of transportation such as taxi cabs falls much closer to the insane side than the murder side. What laws matter? To me, when it’s around the taxi stuff, that doesn’t matter or doesn’t matter’s too strong, but I think it’s questionable the degree to which it matters if at all. When you’re talking about emissions and you’re talking about global warming and you’re talking about doing something that on massive scale is going to cost lives, which is important to me and is going to cost money as well, which is important although less so, to me, that matters. That’s a law that matters.
A lot of times, software finds itself in the process of pricking holes in the old balloons like taxi cabs and deflating those bulbous ugly obese flabby systems. I want those systems to be deflated. They should be deflated and it’s just that software is the hack that’s getting us to the deflation. Again, my pirate self here, amen, man. Live and let live. Prick those bubbles. The question is, and this is why the law always caters to the lowest common denominator like at some more objective level, somebody has to decide this is what’s important and this isn’t, but those aren’t clear rules. Those are things that are making themselves up as they go along.
Very roundabout way of saying I think law is messy. I think law is ambiguous. I think law oftentimes is holding up old, broken systems and I think there’s times when laws should be broken, bottom line, flat out. Is this explicit one with Uber that? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know, but I’m certainly sympathetic to ride sharing companies trying to work around old traditional systems, trying to stomp on them from upsetting the old power order.
Right. Yeah, that’s an interesting take, not at all where you would go with that. From my-
That’s why you love me, Jon, that’s why-
Yes, that is exactly it. For me, I think there’s both the Uber story and the Volkswagen one from the year before, and really just the prevalence of what I’m going to call, I don’t know if this is the term or not, but grayware, software that’s meant to do things that are a little bit questionable when it comes to either the ethics or the law. The occurrence of this software in corporations, it probably should not surprise me, but it does nonetheless when it’s revealed.
In a general sense, we can understand that software is a tool and that the tools that we purchase off the shelf are the most pristine ones that or at least they’re upfront about what their usage is going to be and that there’s a lot of possibility for these tools to be used in other ways, nefarious or not. I’m not even talking about black hat activities like stealing credit card numbers or social security numbers or what have you, stuff that’s clearly on the side of criminality, but the idea that there’s a set of tools being developed to further corporate interests that are specifically not straightforward, but rather targeted to be deceptive. I think that’s very much a growing trend as far as we can see revealed as digital company grow bigger, as all companies become software companies, they can build tools now that advantage themselves sometimes to the detriment of others.
At least from my perspective, this is an unexpected area of software that I’m just starting to see develop. We’re well aware of the commercial and B2B side of things and we hear all the stories about the cybersecurity breaches and the other dark net side of things, but this spot in the middle frankly has been a blind spot for me. As The Digital Life unfolds, it’s very interesting to see this, what I would call a category of software take shape that is neither black nor white like the market itself.
Dirk, your take on it is pretty interesting just from a framing standpoint looking at it as sometimes it can be a bit of leverage against an antiquated system and in other cases, it’s this very objectionable thing because it’s causing damage to our environment and our atmosphere, and that’s what really interests me about this gray area of software. I’m sure we are going to see more of this type to come.
I’m sure we will and the question is who ultimately is the arbiter, the moral arbiter, the legal arbiter? From my perspective, of course, my judgments around Volkswagen’s move is a nay and Uber’s is a yay makes sense and is coherent, but probably I’m not the one who should be making the judgments around this stuff. The question is how do we get to an environment where those lines are more clear and crisp? How do we get to the point where we socially are ready to identify and overturn these old antiquated systems and use software and use innovation as active levers to change that?
In the past, changing things would take generations. It would take either generations or massive revolution. Now, changes are as simple as code. Changes are as simple as putting out a new product that skirts around the silly inanities of the past. How can we as a society and how can we as a system embrace that and benefit from it instead of straddling it with the limitations and the vested interest of the past?
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in The Digital Life and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, PlayerFM and GooglePlay. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk.
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @ D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R and thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for Episode 197 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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