‘Stall, be unresponsive’: Uber’s ‘kill switch’ mechanism and more to keep authorities at bay

The company instructed its employees in India to remain “unresponsive” to the Indian authorities and not cooperate with them, should they raise any concern

Uber also announced it is currently piloting Uber Bus, a new service that guarantees a seat to its customer in an air-conditioned bus. This is currently being tried and tested in Delhi and in Cairo, Egypt.
Uber had devised a 'Kill Switch,' as referred to in the internal mails, and used a blocking software to turn off the systems in case of an emergency situation, such as a tax raid.

Cab-aggregator Uber had directed its employees to ignore Indian authorities and devised internal mechanisms to keep them at bay in case of any regulatory concerns, leaked emails and confidential documents accessed by The Indian Express have revealed. The company had pushed a “kill-switch” mechanism across markets, including India, in case of an emergency, such as a tax raid, wherein the company would shut down its system in order to prevent government officials from accessing any of its records. The company further instructed its employees in India to remain “unresponsive” to the Indian authorities and not cooperate with them, should they raise any concern.

A year after its launch in the Indian marker, Uber’s then Asia Head, Allen Penn, wrote an email to the India team on August 23, 2014, with the subject line reading as “dealing with regulatory issues”: “We will likely have both local and national issues in almost every city in India for the rest of your tenure at Uber… Don’t talk to the Government or folks close to the Government unless you have specifically discussed with Jordan (Uber’s then Head of Public Policy for Asia Jordan Condo)… we will generally stall, be unresponsive, and often say no to what they want. This is how we operate and it’s nearly always the best. Early quick meetings set us up for failure. Get comfortable with that approach… don’t let it distract you from your mission to dominate the market.”

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In the mail, as reported by IE, Penn clearly laid out the framework on how the employees should deal with the Indian government, in case they are approached.

The thread is among hundreds of emails and internal files of the company accessed by The Guardian and subsequently shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, of which The Indian Express is a part of.

After a woman passenger was raped inside an Uber cab in New Delhi back in 2014, the cab aggregator app was forced to apply for a license via an Indian subsidiary, instead of its Dutch firm Uber BV, after being banned in the national capital for seven months.

In the coming years, Uber faced several issues with the government authorities after regulatory red flags were raised by the Reserve Bank of India and the likes of the Service Tax, Consumer Courts and Income Tax.

For such an eventuality, Uber had devised a ‘Kill Switch,’ as referred to in the internal mails, and used a blocking software to turn off the systems in case of an emergency situation, such as a tax raid. In the data accessed, the ‘Kill Switch’ was used on 13 occasions between 2014-2016 in Amsterdam, Montreal, Hong Kong, Budapest, Lyon and Paris. In one such instance, the then company CEO Travis Kalanick had personally ordered the mechanism to be deployed in Amsterdam, back in September 2015.

Barely two months after the rape incident at Delhi, Uber Manager Rob van der Woude, while explaining how the company had manipulated the Indian officials in the aftermath of the incident wrote on February 10, 2015, “What we did in India is have the city team be as cooperative as possible and have BV (the company in Netherlands) take the heat. E.g. Whenever the local team was called to provide the information, we shut them down from the system making it practically impossible for them to give out any info despite their willingness to do so. At the same time we kept directing the authorities to talk to BV representatives instead. Not sure if that works here given they have telco info but that bought us some months there.’’

From New Delhi to Paris, the directive issued to the Uber managers across the globe was simple — “shut them down.” A set of guidelines outlined the measures to be deployed during a “raid — from sanitised telephonic conversations in order to prevent tapping by the government agencies to kind of data to be shared with the probing authorities.

When Uber’s spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker was approached about the ‘Kill Switch’ module, she told IE, “Uber does not have a ‘Kill Switch’ designed to thwart regulatory inquiries anywhere in the world and has not since Dara Khosrowshahi became CEO in 2017. On the contrary, authorities regularly make requests for information and we routinely cooperate with those requests. While every company has software in place to remotely protect its corporate devices, such software should never have been used to thwart legitimate regulatory actions.”

Allen Penn and Rob van der Woude refused to answer any queries regarding the same, reported IE.

Regarding a demand from special tax inspectors on sharing the information on cab drivers, Uber manager Filip Nuytemans, on February 10, 2015, wrote, in one of the classified internal communication, that he was “open to share data as part of a new regulatory reform, but handing out that data now could lead to all those + 500 drivers being 1) prosecuted with risk of permanent seizure of their car plus fine 2) being audited by tax authorities knowing that most of them are not able to declare under current conditions.”

On the same date, Uber’s legal counsel Zac de Kievit, writing on the same matter, said, “Providing the driver list will gut our supply: it makes it much more easier for the taxman, regulators and police to terrify our supply and enforce against it… what is the least bad option here? Drivers being pursued via criminal proceedings or ourselves?… If we hand over the drivers’ list, our goose may be cooked.”

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First published on: 11-07-2022 at 14:37 IST
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