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Ex-Google Engineer Pleads Guilty to Trade Secret Theft

by Chris Brook on Monday March 23, 2020

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Ex-Google engineer Anthony Levandowski plead guilty to trade secret theft last week, acknowleding he took a sensitive Google file before joining Uber.

It took years but one of the last dominos of a trade secrets lawsuit between Uber and Google and its sister company Waymo, finally fell last week.

Anthony Levandowski, Silicon Valley startup founder and autonomous vehicle engineer, plead guilty last week to stealing a trade secret from Google, his former employer.

In a plea deal last Thursday, Levandowski acknowledged he stole sensitive documents from Google before joining Uber in 2017. Google alleged Uber used those secrets to jumpstart the development of its self-driving car technology.

The news comes a few weeks after Levandowski filed for bankruptcy protection after being ordered to pay $179 million to Google for violating employment contract. By filing for bankruptcy Levandowski can negotiate his debts.

Google and Uber resolved a multimillion lawsuit involving Waymo's intellectual property back in 2018, settling and dismissing the case without prejudice, Levandowski remained on the hook for criminal charges of trade secret theft.

In an indictment unsealed last summer, Google said Levandowski “knowingly stole, and without authorization appropriated, took, carried away, concealed, and by fraud, artifice, and deception obtained trade secrets belonging to Google.”

Specifically, the company alleged that Levandowski took roughly 14,000 files from a server hosted on its network before he left the company. Among those files were purportedly 33 trade secrets belonging to Google - data on laser pulse driver designs, circuit designs, and further guidance on LiDAR laser calibration. LiDAR, or Light Detecting and Ranging technology, is key to self-driving tech as it helps see and parse data on a vehicle's surrounding environment.

Ultimately, Levandowski only admitted to taking an Excel spreadsheet, “Chauffeur TL Weekly Updates — Q4 2015," that detailed weekly metrics for Project Chauffeur, his autonomous driving team at Google.

According to the plea agreement, Levandowski knew the Project Chauffeur data was sensitive and subject to Google's usual confidentiality and employment agreements. That didn’t stop him from downloading the file after resigning from Google with the intent to use it for the benefit of himself and Uber however.

“I downloaded these files with the intent to use them for my own personal benefit, and I understand that I was not authorized to take the files for that purpose,” Levandowski said, in court papers.

Despite this, Levandowski still managed to evade 32 other charges against him. Federal prosecutors plan to drop the other charges in lieu of Levandowski pleading guilty to one charge, according to the plea document.

Post-settlement and post-guilty plea, one of the only things that’s unclear is how much jail time Levandowski will see.

According to reports, the plea agreement included a request to schedule a date for a sentencing hearing - prosecutors can ask for a prison sentence of up to 24 to 30 months as part of the agreement - meaning its likely jail time is possible.

In filing for bankruptcy, Levandowski still needs to pay $756,000 to Google parent company Alphabet, money that covers the company's costs on the federal criminal investigation, as well. Uber indemnifies employees in legal cases but it's believed Levandowski will have to file yet another lawsuit, one of his own, in order to get Uber to pay Google.

The office in charge of overseeing the case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, recently presided over another trade secret theft case, the trial between wearable fitness tech companies Fitbit and Jawbone. In that case, Jawbone alleged an ex-employee stole studies the company considered its “crown jewels" before joining Fitbit. Like the Uber/Google case, the Jawbone/Fitbit case lingered in the court system for five years. Remarkably, the Attorney's Office dropped charges in the Fitbit case last month, stating that its assessment of the cases led them to the fact that "an immediate dismissal of the criminal charges against all defendants would be in the interests of justice.”

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.