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Engineer Behind Google, Uber Trade Secret Theft Case Sentenced

by Chris Brook on Wednesday August 5, 2020

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Anthony Levandowski, the former Google engineer, was sentenced this week, four months after he plead guilty to stealing Google's trade secrets.

The epilogue for the years long trade secret theft saga between Google, Uber, and Anthony Levandowski, the autonomous vehicle tech whiz, is finally being written.

Levandowski, a key figure in 2018's Uber-Waymo trade secrets trial, was sentenced to 18 months in jail for trade secret theft on Tuesday; he was also ordered to be a $95,000 fine and $756,499.22 in restitution to Waymo, Google’s self-driving car program he stole from.

The case stems from an incident way back in 2016 in which Levandowski downloaded and copied files from Google onto his laptop and resigned. He then used that data to form a self-driving truck company, Otto, that eventually went on to be acquired by Uber.

Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber, alleging that by acquiring Otto, it was able to glean sensitive information that Levandowski took with him on the way out of Google. Waymo and Uber settled the trial after four days of argument and testimony in San Francisco in February 2018 but it wasn't immediately clear that a criminal case was being pursued against Levandowski until 2019, when a federal grand jury indicted the engineer on theft of trade secrets charges.

The engineer was ultimately charged with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets for absconding with 14,000 files belonging to Waymo, Google’s self-driving car program.

Among those files were repositories containing engineering, manufacturing, and business files related to Google’s light sensor technology, specifically belonging to the company’s LiDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging) engineering team - a team Levandowski headed up. The files reportedly cost the company millions of dollars to produce and contained highly technical information like circuit board schematics, instructions for installing and testing LiDAR, and an internal tracking document.

“All of us have the right to change jobs,” said U.S. Attorney Anderson at Levandowski’s indictment last August, “none of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door.  Theft is not innovation.”

Levandowski plead guilty to one of those charges as part of a plea deal in March in exchange for  federal prosecutors dropping the other 32 charges.

At that time, it was unclear how much jail time Levandowski would see. The plea agreement initially included a request to schedule a sentencing hearing of up to 25 to 30 months; he ultimately wound up getting that shaved down to 18 months.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of California, when Judge William Alsup handed the sentencing down, he called the case "the biggest trae secret crime I have ever seen," adding "this was not small. This was massive in scale."

According to the Department of Justice, despite dropping the other charges, prosecutors pointed out evidence of "Levandowski’s broader “brazen and shocking” course of conduct, including downloading thousands of files from an internal, password-protected Google server, describing Levandowski’s overall conduct as “brazen and shocking.”

While Levandowski has been sentenced, it's unclear when he will actually be jailed given complications introduced by COVID-19. According to the DOJ, Levandowski will begin serving his sentence in the future, when the risks around the coronavirus have subsided.

Tags: IP theft

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Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Data Insider. He is a technology journalist with a decade of experience writing about information security, hackers, and privacy. Chris has attended many infosec conferences and has interviewed hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site which is a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.