U.S. Justice Dept Charges Former Head of Uber ATG with Stealing Trade Secrets From Waymo

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【Summary】​The saga between Uber and Waymo over the theft of trade secrets continues on. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed criminal charges accusing former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski for stealing trade secrets from the company’s self-driving car subsidiary Waymo and taking them to rival Uber Technologies Inc.

Eric Walz    Oct 03, 2019 11:50 AM PT
U.S. Justice Dept Charges Former Head of Uber ATG with Stealing Trade Secrets From Waymo
Anthony Levandowski once led Uber's self-driving division Uber ATG.

The saga between Uber and Waymo over the theft of trade secrets continues on. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed criminal charges accusing Anthony Levandowski, a former high-ranking engineer at Alphabet Inc, for stealing trade secrets from Waymo the company's self-driving car subsidiary and taking them to rival Uber Technologies Inc.

Levandowski is charged with 33 counts of theft or attempted theft of trade secrets. The charges were announced this morning in San Jose, Calif. by United States Attorney David L. Anderson and Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge John F. Bennett.  

The prosecution of Levandowski is one of Silicon Valley's highest-profile cases alleging theft of trade secrets.

Levandowski is a well-known figure in Silicon Valley circles. He was a top engineer for Google's self-driving car project for over a decade. He was leading Google's work on lidar technology for autonomous driving when he suddenly resigned without notice in Jan 2016 to form his own self-driving trucking company Otto, taking several key Google employees with him in his new venture.

All people are free to change jobs, U.S. Attorney David Anderson said at a news conference. "But what we cannot do is stuff our pockets on the way out the door."

In August 2016, just six month after forming Otto, Levandowski sold his company to Uber for a reported $680 million, which many insiders believed was a way for Uber to jumpstart its own self-driving car development. 

Levandowski was eventually put in charge of Uber ATG, the division of Uber working exclusively on autonomous driving technology.

"Together, we now have one of the strongest autonomous engineering groups in the world," Uber CEO Travis Kalanick wrote in a blog post at the time. Kalanik described Levandowski as "One of the world's leading autonomous engineers." 

However, things began to unravel quickly after Waymo filed a civil lawsuit against Uber in Feb 2017. Waymo claimed that Levandowski had downloaded thousands of confidential files from Waymo before he left and launched Otto.

Levandowski accused of stealing IP related to lidar from Waymo

Prosecutors accused Levandowski downloading more that 14,000 files in Dec 2015 and early 2016 related to Alphabet's self-driving car technology and bringing them to Uber. The alleged stolen materials included technical information, CAD files, wiring schematics, and other IP related to lidar, a crucial sensor technology for autonomous vehicles, according to the indictment.

Levandowski was eventually fired as head of Uber ATG in May 2017 after refusing to testify in the court proceedings and failing to turn over evidence. The ensuing controversy also contributed to the ousting of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick just weeks later. Kalanick was accused of secretly meeting with Levandowski before Otto's acquisition by Uber.

Lawers for both Uber and Waymo settled the original case in Feb 2018 awarding around $245 million in Uber stock to Waymo with no admission of guilt from Uber.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing Levandowski in this latest case said their client stole nothing and that they looked forward to proving his innocence at trial. As reported by Reuters, Levandowski's lawyers said the downloads in question occurred while he was still working at Alphabet, and that he was authorized to use the information. "He didn't steal anything, from anyone," they said.

"For more than a decade, Anthony Levandowski has been an industry-leading innovator in self-driving technologies," one of his lawyers, Miles Ehrlich, said in front of the courthouse, calling the government case a "rehash" of already discredited claims.

Levandowski is facing a prison sentence and a fine if convicted. He is expected to appear later on Tuesday in federal court in San Jose, California.

The prosecution is being handled by the Office of the U.S. Attorney, Northern District of California's new Corporate Fraud Strike Force and is the result of an investigation by the FBI. 

"The Bay Area has the best and brightest engineers," Bennett said at the news conference today. "But Silicon Valley is not the Wild West. The fast pace and competitive environment does not mean federal laws don't apply or they can be ignored."

Waymo said it appreciated the Justice Department's work on the case. "We have always believed competition should be fueled by innovation," a spokeswoman said in a statement.

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