Former Google engineer charged with theft of trade secrets

Anthony Levandowski

Anthony Levandowski was at the center of the clash between Waymo and Uber.


Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski was charged Tuesday with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets from the search giant, federal prosecutors said. He allegedly did so as he prepared to leave Google to build out Uber’s self-driving car operation.

The alleged theft spurred a high-profile and bitter lawsuit two years ago between Google’s self-driving car arm, which was renamed Waymo, and Uber. The charges are focused on Levandowski’s work with Otto, a self-driving trucking company that the engineer founded and Uber acquired in 2016. Google alleged that Levandowski downloaded 14,000 “highly confidential” files describing self-driving technology research and brought them to Otto.

Levandowski was indicted by a federal grand jury in San Jose, California. If convicted, he could face a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000 per charge, the Justice Department said. 

The announcement is the latest bombshell in the long-running legal drama between Waymo and Uber. The case, which went to trial in San Francisco last year, provided a rare glimpse into the high-stakes environment of big tech companies, which typically try to shield their inner workings from public view. But only days into the trial, which was expected to last at least three weeks, the two companies abruptly settled, giving Waymo 0.34 percent of Uber’s equity.

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“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 spokeswoman said in a statement. 

An Uber spokesman didn’t specifically address the charges, but said in a statement, “We’ve cooperated with the government throughout their investigation and will continue to do so.”

The Justice Department’s indictment alleges that Levandowski stole secrets related to lidar (for “light detection and ranging”) technology. The tech allows self-driving cars to “see” their surroundings and detect traffic, pedestrians, bicyclists and other obstacles. The files downloaded by Levandowski allegedly included circuit board schematics, instructions for installing and testing lidar and an internal tracking document, the Justice Department said.

“All of us have the right to change jobs,” US Attorney David L. Anderson said in a statement. “None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation.”