Over the course of its brief and spectacular existence, Uber has often been at odds with what its recently ousted founder, Travis Kalanick, might call the Establishment. For years, taxi drivers and their allies in government have gone after what they considered an existential threat to their livelihoods. Undercover cops have posed as passengers and ticketed Uber drivers who weren't registered as traditional cabbies. And as recently revealed by the New York Times, the company has fought back, employing its own special software to trick authorities trying to conduct stings on its vehicles.
Obviously, none of this prevented the ride-sharing app's meteoric ascent to corporate superstardom. But a photo taken by VICE of a recent arrest in Brooklyn appears to indicate law enforcement has done more than come to terms with the existence of Uber—and may in fact be using the company's logo as a disguise for undercover work.
Around midnight on July 16, a cop—whether local, state, or federal was unclear—apparently posing as an Uber driver arrested a man near the intersection of Havemeyer Avenue and South 2nd Street in Williamsburg. The suspect was cuffed before being placed in the back of a car bearing the ride-sharing company's insignia, according to a colleague of mine who witnessed the arrest and provided the photo. At first blush, this certainly seems odd—or "unusual," as Jacqueline Ross, a law professor at the University of Illinois who's studied police practices across the globe, put it. She said it's more typical for cops to go undercover as an employee of a made-up business, though there's no law she is aware of preventing an officer from posing as someone who works for an established—a.k.a. real—private entity.
Joseph Giacalone, a former NYPD sergeant who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, fondly recalled the fake medallions, "hack" licenses, and convincing-enough yellow cars his fellow cops deployed in undercover operations. When I described the recent arrest, he said it seemed like "good police work." He also echoed Ross and other policing and civil liberties experts I canvassed that such a practice did not appear, on its face, to violate any police regulation or law. The former sergeant doubted Uber would have been asked for the OK prior to such an operation, but eventually, he said, if the practice becomes more widespread, cops might do well to touch base with corporate brass.
"A policy and procedure ensures nothing happens that shouldn't," Giacalone told me. "It prevents lawsuits, too."
In May 2016, Motherboard reported on the Philadelphia Police Department using a truck with what appeared to be a Google Maps logo on it to conduct surveillance. After that article was published, Philly PD put out a statement indicating the "placing of any particular decal on the vehicle was not approved through any chain of command. With that being said, once this was brought to our attention, it was ordered that the decals be removed immediately."
If law enforcement is now resorting to the use of fake Uber cars to disguise police work, it wouldn't be terribly surprising. After all, there's a healthy amount of information out there these days about how to spot an undercover yellow cab in New York alone. And if old-school taxis continue to fall by the wayside—there were nearly 50,000 Ubers in the city compared to fewer than 14,000 yellow cabs as of January—their presence may grow more conspicuous. Large swaths of the country may already be at or near the threshold of ride-share saturation such that a black car with an Uber decal is the most effective cloak there is for an undercover.
Among other things, what remains unclear is whether the arresting individual in Brooklyn was merely using a corporate decal on his car or if he was actually posing as a driver by picking people up with Uber's proprietary software. That's something Michael German, a former FBI undercover agent who is now a fellow at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, told me makes for a key distinction here.
"I could imagine there would be any number of circumstances in which having an undercover pose as an employee of a particular corporation would make perfect sense and not raise any legal or policy concerns," he said. "But there would be many more cases in which such a role would be entirely inappropriate."
Basically, German believes that whether the undercover operation poses significant new civil liberties concerns depends on two things: the severity of the alleged crime and how many people were duped.
For instance, if there were a dangerous fugitive working at Uber, and someone needed to pose as an employee to arrest him, then no problem—that, in German's eyes, could well be warranted. But if someone posing as an Uber driver were picking up innocent people and talking shop with fellow contractors in the process of a long probe, that kind of investigative sprawl would be troubling, in part because the sheer volume of non-suspects potentially subject to unwarranted surveillance.
"Someone acting as a taxi or car-service driver could gather lots of information about customers," German said. "Even if they are silent passengers, the driver knows where and when they were picked up and dropped off, which might be very revealing in itself."
From a business perspective, Uber could potentially lose customers if people began to assume they might be spied on while using the service. From a civil liberties standpoint, drivers might not want to use the app if there were a chance they'd end up talking shop around the proverbial water cooler with someone who, unbeknownst to them, was holding a badge. The same goes for customers who might normally make small-talk with the driver getting them from point A to B.
Perhaps most likely in this case is that whatever law enforcement agency this was simply borrowed a popular business's likeness, which German is less troubled by.
"There are always civil liberties concerns with any use of the undercover technique, but assuming the operation was properly authorized and targeting serious crime, using a car service sticker as part of an undercover role wouldn't seem to raise serious issues, except potentially with the car service company," he said.
For now, every indication is that whoever was doing the arresting that day in Brooklyn was not in touch with anyone in Silicon Valley. In an emailed statement, an Uber spokesperson told VICE, "Although we often work and cooperate with police through our law enforcement outreach team, we're not aware of anything related to this so would not have any details to provide."
A license plate database search suggested the car bearing sirens and Uber insignia has never been registered as either a law enforcement or taxi vehicle. VICE has reached out to multiple law enforcement agencies in an effort to determine the organization responsible. The FBI confirmed the vehicle was not theirs, and at press time the New York State Police were looking into the matter. The DEA, ATF, ICE, and NYPD did not respond to requests for comment.
Jonathan Smith contributed reporting for this story.
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.