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Geo-fencing in the US and Abroad

The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

A frequent topic of conversation among expatriates in Mexico is “What’s the best way to break the rules at Amazon and Netflix and not get caught?” It is a never-ending arms race between content providers that are obligated to abide by copyright laws and customers who want to watch English-language content here in Mexico even though they know that doing so is against the rules. Content providers deploy geo-fencing technology to prevent foreign IP addresses being able to access content, but fences only invite climbing over, tunneling under, or cutting through.

Geo-fencing has been the source of some problems for the popular ride-sharing company Uber when it was caught using it surreptitiously. The management at Uber is well known to play fast and loose with the rules and even the law.

Uber faced a situation in Portland, Oregon, where the company was not yet licensed to do business. Employing a geo-fencing technology named “Greyball,” Uber tried to hide its illegal presence in that market, and it worked until enforcement officials in Portland became aware that their smart phones showed that no Uber cabs were available while other people in Portland were using Uber taxis. Uber had tried to fence off the locations of law-enforcement offices in Portland and even data-mined credit card account data so that if a user’s account showed transactions with the Police Credit Union then that person’s Uber app would never show any rides available.

Authorities caught onto what Uber was doing, and a criminal case is now moving its way at glacial speed through the US Justice Department. In another case, Uber learned that not everyone moves at the ponderously slow speed of government law enforcement authorities.

Uber was also breaking a bunch of the rules at Apple by committing gross violations of the security policies put in place to protect user privacy. In what turned out to be a ridiculous attempt to skirt the rules, Uber geo-fenced Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, California, so that anyone inside Apple’s property would see one Uber app that respected the rules, while everyone outside Apple was shown a different Uber app. The engineers at Apple are not that easily fooled, and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick soon found himself summoned to a meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook. The upshot of that was that Kalanick got a firm slap on the wrist, and his Uber was permitted to continue using the Apple app store.

Back to the opening question asked by so many expatriates, the one about how to cheat with Amazon or Netflix without getting caught. Those content providers geo-fenced their servers so that if you are outside the US you are not supposed to be able to access movies that are copyright-law restricted to the US market. If you ever figure out a foolproof way to circumvent that law and never get caught, Uber might gift you a taxi ride if you show how you did it.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at)


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