The US Department of Justice is conducting a criminal investigation into Uber over a program to mislead city regulators about its operations, an official in Portland, Oregon, has confirmed.

Controversy over Uber’s software, known as “Greyball”, has been mounting since the existence of the program, which shows a different version of the app to certain users, was revealed by the New York Times in early March. Uber had previously insisted that the tool was fully legal and had other uses, beyond preventing certain city employees from accessing its ride-hailing services.

Bryce Bennett, Uber’s general manager for Oregon, said:

“Uber actively and fully cooperated with PBOT [Portland Bureau of Transportation] and provided information that was relevant to its investigation into the use of Greyball in Portland in December of 2014. The PBOT report found no evidence that Uber has used Greyball or any technology to avoid city inspectors since the council passed laws allowing ride sharing services to operate in Portland in 2015. Since then hundreds of thousands of riders and thousands of drivers have safely become active on Uber’s digital ride-sharing network in the Portland metro area. Uber’s local operations team has participated in weekly compliance calls and meetings with the PBOT staff for over two years, and will continue to do to ensure Portlanders continue to have safe, affordable, and equitable access to the rides sharing services so many residents have come to depend on to get where they need to go in the Portland area.”

The federal investigation into Greyball was revealed in a report from the city of Portland, which started conducting its own audit of the scheme shortly after it was discovered. The DOJ declined to comment last night on the nature of the probe.

In a statement on Friday, Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman made the first public confirmation that the investigation is criminal, as had previously been reported by Reuters, which cited anonymous sources.

“We support the criminal investigation by the United States Department of Justice into Uber’s use of the Greyball tool to evade regulators, and will continue to move forward with our own efforts to subpoena the requested records from Uber,” Mr Saltzman said.

Portland City Council is trying to force Uber to turn over internal documents and software related to Greyball. Uber has admitted to using the tool in Portland in late 2014 but stopped using it once the northwestern city legalised ride-hailing services.

“Public safety is our top priority, and the City of Portland will hold everyone in the private for hire transportation industry accountable for complying with our safety and consumer protections,” Mr Saltzman said. “We fully support expanding transportation options for Portlanders, but we need to ensure everyone in the industry is playing by the rules, providing universal service, and acting ethically.

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