The individuals who collected information for Uber were intended to be ghosts, according to the storey. For years, they served as unsearchable sentinels, notifying leaders about the behaviour of rivals, adversaries, and dissatisfied staff in the background. Yet in 2017, one of the team’s members turned on the others, accusing them of theft of trade secrets, eavesdropping, and deleting evidence. The secrecy of the close-knit group came to an abrupt halt.
Their former co-worker, Richard Jacobs, alleged that they broke the law while carrying out some of Uber’s dirtiest missions in an April 2017 email given to the company’s highest-ranking officials. His lawyer responded with a letter in which he claimed that the team had gone so far as to infiltrate other governments and wiretap Uber’s own staff members.
However, the most serious charges of unlawful activities made by Mr. Jacobs were shown to be untrue. In June, over four years after his statements gained widespread notice, he issued a formal retraction. Mr. Jacobs clarified in a letter to his former co-workers that he wrote as part of a legal settlement that he had never meant to imply that they had broken the law.
In many ways, Mr. Jacobs’ narrative, and the years it took to piece it together, were intertwined with Uber’s tarnished image. In the months leading up to the publication of his account, the ride-hailing firm has been accused of allowing widespread workplace harassment, mishandling medical information, and failing to disclose data breaches.
An Uber spokeswoman refused to comment on what Mr. Jacobs stated and later reversed — or on the ramifications of those statements for the individuals engaged in the case.
In the end, Uber’s tarnished brand was more closely associated with its workers than with the corporation as a whole. This narrative is based on hundreds of pages of records from litigation related to the event, as well as talks with several of the men who were engaged in the incident, who are speaking publicly for the first time about that chapter in their careers and its repercussions.
It was a bittersweet departure, to say the very least. The organisation had employed Mr. Gicinto for more than a decade, during which time he travelled the globe, refining his abilities to cultivate sources and gather intelligence. His wife also worked for the government, but the demands of their jobs put a burden on the family’s finances. Mr. Gicinto was often absent from his son’s birthday celebrations and wished to spend more time at home.
The next Monday, he came to the Uber headquarters in Washington, D.C. There were no security officers on duty, and there were no metal detectors. In the workplace, Mr. Gicinto could stroll right in and into the facility, which was a huge space with fishbowl conference rooms and an almost unlimited supply of complimentary refreshments.
Uber was rapidly expanding into new international areas throughout that year. The retaliation was quick and, in some cases, brutal. A large number of taxi drivers demonstrated around the country, and some Uber vehicles were set ablaze and drivers were attacked in Nairobi, Kenya. The data of Uber’s customers was collected by competitors in China and India, who employed sophisticated tactics to undercut the company’s costs.
Uber started recruiting a team of former C.I.A. agents such as Mr. Gicinto, as well as law enforcement officials and cybersecurity specialists, in order to fight back. The team would collect information regarding threats against Uber drivers and executives, as well as information about competitive firms and prospective acquisitions, according to the company.
Additionally, in addition to Uber’s hiring of former CIA and National Security Agency hackers to fend off cyberattacks, Google, Facebook, and Amazon hired former Federal Bureau of Investigation agents to staff teams responsible for fielding law enforcement requests, and former Pentagon officials to advise on defence contracts.
Despite this, their workload increased significantly. In order to keep track on Uber’s rivals in other countries, whether they were taxi drivers or executives at the Chinese ride-hailing company Didi, the group, which expanded to encompass dozens of people, was established. As well as protecting their own executives from monitoring, they needed to guard against web-scraping activities, which employed automated systems to gather information about Uber’s pricing and driver supply.
It was a difficult and time-consuming process. The team outsourced certain initiatives to intelligence organisations, which hired contractors to infiltrate driver demonstrations in order to stay on top of the workload. Other work was completed in-house, as Uber developed its own scraping mechanism to collect vast volumes of competition information. Scraping public data is permissible, however the use of such material for commercial purposes is restricted by the law.
The job went on as before. As Mr. Gicinto remembered, the team informed Dara Khosrowshahi, the new chief executive, on intelligence it had obtained after surveilling self-driving vehicles belonging to Cruise, a General Motors-owned company, on the information it had gathered. Mr. West’s legal team had leaked information to The Information, a technology magazine, and the investigation was launched.
The members of the team quit one by one. Mr. Henley joined the internet infrastructure company Cloudflare, while Mr. Nocon and Mr. Gicinto joined the Tesla Motors Corporation. Mr. Russo has returned to his previous government position. Uber filed a lawsuit against them after they departed, alleging that they had stolen private material from the firm.