Uber used secret spyware to try to crush Australian start-up GoCatch
22 Apr 2019
International rideshare giant Uber used a secret spyware program to steal drivers from an Australian competitor with the aim of putting that company out of business.
Uber developed spyware code-named Surfcam in its Sydney office in 2015
Surfcam scraped data on competitors' cars to allow Uber to poach drivers
Uber used Surfcam to steal drivers from start-up GoCatch
The spyware program, code-named Surfcam, was deployed against Australian start-up rideshare company GoCatch, which was backed by high-profile investors including billionaire James Packer and hedge fund manager Alex Turnbull.
GoCatch was a major competitor to Uber when the US company launched in Australia in 2012. At the time, both companies were offering a new way to book taxis and hire cars using a smartphone app.
Surfcam was developed in Uber Australia's head office in Sydney in 2015.
A former senior Uber employee has told Four Corners that the idea behind the use of the Surfcam spyware was to starve GoCatch of drivers.
"Surfcam when used in Australia was able to put fledgling Australian competitors onto the ropes," the former employee with direct knowledge of the program said on the condition of anonymity.
"Surfcam allowed Uber Australia to see in real time all of the competitor cars online and to scrape data such as the driver's name, car registration, and so on".
It allowed Uber to directly approach the GoCatch drivers and lure them to work for Uber.
"GoCatch would lose customers due to poaching of its drivers draining their supply. With fewer and fewer drivers, GoCatch would eventually fold," the former Uber employee said.
'Massive impact on our business'
GoCatch's co-founder and chief executive, Andrew Campbell, has told Four Corners that while GoCatch survived, Uber's tactics damaged the company.
"The fact that Uber used hacking technologies to steal our data and our drivers is appalling," he said.
"It had a massive impact on our business. It sets a really dangerous precedent for the Australian economy and Australian businesses as well. It tells every multinational company to come to Australia and follow the same practice."
"As an Australian small business, a technology start-up business based in Australia that's improving efficiency and service levels in the taxi industry, to have a company come to Australia and get away with that type of behaviour is … it's disgusting.
"It's completely un-Australian and it shouldn't be allowed in this country.
"The damage that that has done to GoCatch and other businesses is significant and frankly it should have been stopped."
Surfcam's use in Singapore against a competitor called Grab was reported in late 2017 by the Bloomberg news service.
However, its use in Sydney against GoCatch has never previously been revealed.
Surfcam was part of Uber's aggressive strategy
Surfcam was part of an aggressive strategy Uber pursued under co-founder Travis Kalanick to establish itself globally amid fierce opposition from authorities and the taxi industry.
Mr Kalanick has since been replaced as chief executive by Dara Khosrowshahi, who has declared he wants to overhaul Uber's culture.
Uber launched its ridesharing service UberX in Australia in 2014. UberX allowed customers to book trips with non-professional drivers using their private cars via a smartphone app.
At the time authorities deemed it illegal and began fining Uber drivers.
GoCatch decided not to launch a similar ridesharing service until local laws were changed to allow for it.
Mr Campbell believes local authorities failed to protect Australian companies with the existing laws when Uber entered the country.
"Australian authorities need to learn from this lesson and be a bit stronger in enforcing Australian laws. Because a weak government hurts the economy," he said.
"Allowing companies to come to Australia, break transport laws, behave anti-competitively, does nothing good for Australian interests whatsoever. What Australian business and Australian industry want is a strong government framework that they can operate within and make a profit. Without that we're at a loss."
Surfcam now prohibited by Uber
The existence of Surfcam has been confirmed to Four Corners by a senior Uber source.
The source stated that the spyware program was developed by a staff member in the Sydney head office who modified off-the-shelf data scraping software.
They said the Sydney employee did it under his own authority, and that once Uber discovered this, they requested he stop.
According to the former senior employee, the Sydney developer of the spyware had moved from Sydney to Singapore at the time when Uber and Grab were fighting it out for dominance of the massive rideshare market in South-East Asia.
An Uber Australian spokeswoman said the company had conducted an audit of the use of Surfcam and it has been prohibited.
"We have made significant changes to our leadership team, including our CEO, and to the fundamentals of how the company operates, putting integrity at the core of everything we do," she said.
"We are on record consistently welcoming competition; we have robust policies and guidelines which define acceptable and ethical practices across our global operations for the use of non-confidential, publicly available and commercially available information in compliance with relevant Australian and international law."
Source: ABC News
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