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Former Uber Engineer Charged With 33 Counts Of Trade-Secret Theft

Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, was charged Tuesday with stealing closely guarded secrets before he signed on with Uber, which was scrambling to catch up in the high-stakes race to build robotic vehicles.
Jeff Chiu
Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, was charged Tuesday with stealing closely guarded secrets before he signed on with Uber, which was scrambling to catch up in the high-stakes race to build robotic vehicles.

It may have appeared that Anthony Levandowski was out of the legal hot seat after Google's parent company, Alphabet, agreed to settled a corporate espionage lawsuit against Uber last year. But the controversial Silicon Valley executive is at the center of another case stemming from the same allegations — only this time it is federal prosecutors claiming that after years of spearheading Google's autonomous vehicle division, he looted a trove of top-secret files before going to work with Google's primary rival, Uber.

Levandowski was charged on Tuesday with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets for allegedly making off with about 14,000 files pertaining to the Google's Waymo self-driving car project.

The criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Northern California alleges that in the months before he abruptly resigned from Google in January 2016, Levandowski downloaded and copied key files onto his laptop. He then used those trade secrets to create his own self-driving truck company called Otto, according to the documents. Months later that startup was acquired by Uber for roughly $680 million. Additionally, Uber named Levandowski as head of the ride-hailing company's autonomous vehicle department, which was getting off the ground at the time.

"All of us have the right to change jobs, none of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door," U.S. Attorney David Anderson said in a statement. "Theft is not innovation."

Court documents say Levandowski made off with circuit board drawings and schematics as well as detailed designs for light sensor technology called Lidar that took "years of research and testing, and millions of dollars in investment" for Google to produce.

"The FBI will not tolerate the theft of trade secrets," FBI Special Agent in Charge John Bennett, told NPR in an emailed statement. "These are the Crown Jewels of companies and this unlawful behavior has a real impact on our economy, local jobs, and consumers around the country and even the world. Silicon Valley is not the Wild West."

Levandowski's lawyers, Ismail Ramsey and Miles Ehrlich, say he's an innovator in the self-driving technology field and "didn't steal anything from anyone."

"The downloads at issue occurred while Anthony was still working at Google — when he and his team were authorized to use the information. None of these supposedly secret files ever went to Uber or to any other company," they said in a statement, adding that the latest charges rehash "claims already discredited in a civil case."

The lawsuit between the two tech giants over the same issue was settled last year after a four-day trial in which Levandowski refused to cooperate with Uber's defense attorneys, citing Fifth Amendment privileges. He was subsequently fired from Uber.

In the end, Uber, which at the time was planning to go public, agreed to pay Alphabet's Waymo subsidiary $245 million to end the legal proceedings, and not to use its technology.

The judge who oversaw the lawsuit also recommended the case for criminal investigation, which is what led to the indictment against Levandowski.

"We have always believed competition should be fueled by innovation, and we appreciate the work of the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI on this case," a Waymo spokesperson told NPR in an emailed statement. Meanwhile, Uber said it has "cooperated with the government throughout their investigation and will continue to do so."

If convicted, Levandowski faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 on each of the 33 counts of trade-secret theft.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.
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