San Francisco. Former Uber Technologies Inc engineer Anthony Levandowski was charged with stealing driverless technology from Alphabet Inc’s Waymo unit, resurrecting the intrigue of the biggest legal battle to grip Silicon Valley in recent memory.
The 33-count indictment announced Tuesday by federal officials in San Jose, California, adds a new criminal chapter to the saga that hung over Waymo’s civil claims of trade-secret theft against Uber. Even after the companies abruptly settled the litigation in the middle of a high-stakes trial last year, questions remained about the mysterious engineer at the centre of the turmoil.
“All of us have the right to change jobs,” San Francisco US Attorney David Anderson said at a press conference in San Jose. “None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation.”
Levandowski, 39, voluntarily surrendered to authorities and faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if he’s convicted. Anderson said the government’s investigation is ongoing, but he declined to discuss the probe further.
Levandowski “didn’t steal anything from anyone,” his lawyer, Miles Ehrlich, said in a statement. The indictment “rehashed claims discredited in a civil case that settled more than a year and a half ago.”
Legal experts had long speculated about what prosecutors might have found after the San Francisco judge handling the lawsuit referred it for further investigation in May 2017 and the case produced streams of evidence and testimony embarrassing to Uber. Emails and texts revealed a deeply personal connection between Levandowski and Uber’s then-chief executive officer, Travis Kalanick.
In the civil suit, Waymo alleged that Levandowski, while he was still at the company, hatched a plan in 2015 with Uber for him to steal more than 14,000 proprietary files, including the designs for lidar technology that helps driverless cars see their surroundings.
Uber, under Kalanick’s leadership, acquired Otto LLC — the company Levandowski formed days before he quit Waymo in January 2016 — in a $600 million stock deal that August.
Levandowski became head of Uber’s self-driving project, but was demoted, and eventually fired, under pressure from the litigation. Levandowski, who wasn’t a defendant in the lawsuit, refused to answer questions from Waymo, turn over documents or testify at trial, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Levandowski’s indictment probably will renew interest in any role Kalanick might have played, both in the alleged theft and the investigation that led to the charges. Kalanick recruited Levandowski from Waymo and the civil lawsuit had produced evidence of texts and long walks the two took to develop their plan to thwart Waymo.
Throughout the case, US District Judge William Alsup said it seemed “overwhelmingly clear” Levandowski took confidential files from Google but that there’s no “smoking gun” proof Uber illegally used the information.
Uber said in a statement Tuesday that it has cooperated with the government’s investigation “and will continue to do so.”
Waymo said, “We have always believed competition should be fuelled by innovation, and we appreciate the work of the US Attorney’s Office and the FBI on this case.” The civil case is Waymo LLC v. Uber Technologies Inc, 17-00939, US District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).