Just a year after its launch in India, on August 23, 2014, Uber’s then-head of Asia, Allen Penn, emailed the team here: “Embrace the chaos. It means you are doing something meaningful.”
There was some “chaos” just over three months later – on December 5, 2014, a female passenger was sexually assaulted in an Uber taxi by her driver in New Delhi.
In his August email titled “Dealing with Regulatory Issues,” Penn laid out to his Indian colleagues what now appears to be standard operating procedure: how Uber managers should block government inquiries and letters.
While encouraging the team – “regardless of what the competition and vested interests say, you and Uber are the ones who make India better” – he instructed them on how to keep the authorities at bay.
“We are likely to have local and national issues in almost every city in India for the rest of your tenure at Uber… Do not speak to the government or people close to the government unless you have specifically discussed it with Jordan (a reference to Jordan Condo, Chief Uber’s Asia Public Policy)… we often stop, don’t respond, and often say no to what they want. That’s how we operate and it’s almost always for the best. The first quick meetings set us up for failure. Be comfortable with this approach…don’t let it distract you from your quest to dominate the market,” he wrote.
The email is part of The Uber Files investigated by The Indian Express. These records were obtained by The Guardian and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that Indian Express partnered with for this investigation.
The rape case in New Delhi saw Uber temporarily taken off the capital’s roads and the ride-sharing service forced, for the first time in any city in the world, to apply for a license to manage operations through an Indian subsidiary, and not from Uber BV, its international firm located in the Netherlands.
Later, Uber faced a series of regulatory issues with the Reserve Bank of India and government authorities such as the Service Tax, Consumer Courts and Income Tax. And still does.
Internal emails and documents reveal that India was among the countries where Uber deployed its unique blocking software, which company insiders refer to as ‘Kill Switch’ in internal emails.
The ‘Kill Switch’ should be used to shut down systems in the event of serious regulatory action such as a tax attack.
For starters, Uber used a software called ‘Casper’ and then ‘Ripley’.
The data shows 13 cases between 2014-2016 when ‘Kill Switch’ was used in different cities around the world. It was used in Amsterdam, Montreal, Hong Kong, Budapest, Lyon and Paris. Travis Kalanick, co-founder and CEO of Uber, personally ordered its use in Amsterdam in September 2015.
There are emails that show the ‘Kill Switch’ was also supposed to be used during a tax raid on the company’s Brussels offices in March 2015, but detectives seized staff computers before it could be deployed.
The reference to India comes in confidential emails dated February 10, 2015 – two months after the New Delhi rape incident and subsequent ban on its service.
The emails are titled “Uber Belgium/Special Tax Inspectors” and have a context of alleged VAT return violations committed by Uber-Belgium.
In the emails, it is Uber manager Rob van der Woude who provides a detailed account of how Uber blocked access to its data to Indian authorities.
He says: “What we did in India was to make the city staff as cooperative as possible and make BV (the company in the Netherlands) stand up to the heat. For example, whenever local staff were called in to provide information, we logged them out of the system, making it virtually impossible for them to provide any information despite their willingness to do so. At the same time, we continue to advise the authorities to speak with BV representatives. Not sure if that works here as they have telecom information, but it got us a few months there.”
Evidently, “closing them down” was the norm for Uber managers in territories from India to Paris.
After the Brussels fiasco, the company conceived a “dawn attack app” and circulated a “dawn attack manual” among its senior employees. A 10-page manual is also part of the data.
In the manual there are detailed instructions on how a “raid” should be managed; how phone conversations should be sanitized if regulators are tapping phones; how a raid coordinator should be appointed; and what categories of data can be shared with raid inspectors.
Asked about the frequent use of the ‘Kill Switch’, Uber US spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker and the company’s spokeswoman in New Delhi had an identical response: the world and not since Dara Khosrowshahi became CEO in 2017. On the contrary, authorities regularly make requests for information and we routinely cooperate with these requests. While every company has software to remotely secure their corporate devices, that software should never have been used to stop legitimate regulatory actions.”
Allen Penn and Rob van der Woude did not respond to questions.
In India, Uber was forced to make a structural change from the Netherlands operations to an India-based subsidiary Resourcexpert India Private Limited, while in countries such as Belgium, it was under pressure from tax authorities to hand over data on drivers who were using it. Uber phones.
For example, there is a confidential email from Uber manager Filip Nuytemans, dated February 10, 2015, regarding demands for special inspector driver data. Uber’s manager says he was “open to sharing data as part of new regulatory reform, but distributing 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 the tax authorities knowing that the majority are not able to declare under current conditions.”
There’s also an email – it has the same date – from Uber’s legal advisor Zac de Kievit who said: push against it… what’s the least bad option here? Drivers being pursued for criminal prosecutions or ourselves?… If we hand over the driver list, our goose can be cooked.”
After a raid on Uber’s Paris offices the same year, de Kievit was arrested for obstruction of justice, cutting off access to IT and activating the ‘Kill Switch’.