A lawsuit is a situation where an individual or an organization takes a dispute to court for due attention and a legal decision. What one of the ongoing trials that has gained much attention and I have picked for my discussion post is the one involving Alphabet and Uber. On 23 February 2017, Alphabet filed a lawsuit against Uber over the theft of its trade secrets of Waymo’s self-driving car system by its former engineer, Anthony Levandowski. Waymo is an automated car development company owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, Inc. The final verdict is expected to be out on 3 May 2017 where the judge would decide if Uber could continue to use Alphabet’s technology or not.
The dishonesty in corporate culture to gain personal and financial benefits by stealing former’s company trade secrets and intellectual property passing it on to the competitor is prevalent, and it has often gotten companies to file lawsuits in past decades. The following graph was prepared by Osterman (2016) in a research based on the problems related to data protection when an employee leaves with the company data, and it is evident that a company faces about 69% of data loss from former employees.
Same is the story associated with Alphabet’s former engineer, Anthony Levandowski. According to the lawsuit filed, he has been secretively planning to open his self-driven car company and just a month before resigning he carried out theft of approximately 14,000 documents, which also included the design specification of the self-driven cars circuit board. Davies (2017) elaborates that once Mr. Levandowski accessed the server, he downloaded the 14,000 files, representing approximately 9.7 GB of highly confidential data. Then he attached an external drive to the laptop for eight hours. He installed a new operating system that would have the effect of reformatting his laptop, attempting to erase any forensic fingerprints that would show what he did with Waymo’s valuable lidar designs once they had been downloaded to his computer. After Mr. Levandowski wiped this laptop, he only used it for a few minutes, and then inexplicably never used it again.
After he had left Google, he used all the stolen information to start up his company named Otto, which only after a few months was later taken over by Uber. Uber not only acquired it but also made Anthony Levandowski in charge of the self-driven car division. The lawsuit states that Uber has disobeyed the Trade Secrets Act and patent violation. Waymo also brought into attention that it has spent millions of dollars for this research since 2009. On December 2016 an email was accidentally sent to Waymo’s employee by its suppliers with the subject “Otto Files”. The email attachments had a striking resemblance to Waymo’s design and so this evidence acted as the final nail in the coffin and lawsuit against Uber was filed earlier this year.
If Waymo’s claim against Levandowski and Uber are found to be true, it could face millions of dollars of fine. A possibility of the penalty of 10 years in jail is there for theft of trade secrets is a criminal offense (Burke, 2017).
On the other side, Uber doesn’t disagree with the stealing of 14,000 files and says that those files never were transferred to Uber’s server. It claims that it is a tactic used by Google to dent its competitor progress and that if Waymo had a real concern regarding the theft, it would not have waited for five months to file for an injunction.
Angela Padilla, Uber’s associate general counsel, said in a statement. “If Waymo genuinely thought that Uber was using its secrets, it would not have waited more than five months to seek an injunction. Waymo doesn’t meet the high bar for an injunction, which would stifle our independent innovation — probably Waymo’s goal in the first place” (Wakabayashi and Isaac, 2017).
An interesting turn in the case took place in March 2017 when Levandowski, sought his Fifth Amendment right over fears of a criminal trial against him. But a few days ago, the judge rejected it and said that Uber needs to explain what Levandowski has been working on since joining Uber. In a way, I think the judge has hinted that Uber is on purpose hiding the crime committed by its employee. Uber insisted that it cannot produce the requested information in such short time whereas the judge asserted that it should not be difficult to provide the required data. An interesting fact is that even before buying Otto, Uber’s lawyers were already discussing a possibility of a lawsuit on emails, which means it knew that it is on the verge of buying stolen intellectual property.
Reading both sides of the story, I would say we all spent some quality time last week emphasizing IPR and academic integrity. This lawsuit by Waymo, if proven to be true is a clear breach by a former employee. Levandowski had been with Google since 2007 and was working on this self-driven car project since its inception. When a company hires an employee, it not only trusts it but invests in it. And when an employee leaves a company and passes on the former’s company’s data is a clear violation of intellectual property right. There should be stringent laws and policies in place which should hinder any employee from carrying out such criminal act. A company that gives you employment by stealing its sensitive information and reusing it for one’s benefit only incurs the loss to that company. So only thinking about one’s profit and progress and not giving any importance to the significant loss to the owner of the intellectual property is not only loss regarding money but also in terms of time and research. To protect, their data, companies should keep a limited and transparent access to its data servers and ensure the security of data using advanced encryption techniques. Also, the data that is not relevant for IT department should not be made accessible to them.
This lawsuit is also claiming a violation of trade secret and the law for trade secret violations under the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, intentional trade secret theft—including stealing, copying, and receiving secrets—is both a state and federal white collar crime. Convicted individuals face fines of up to $500,000 and ten years in jail, while corporations can be fined up to $5 million. Also, all property and proceeds from the stolen secret can be seized and sold by the government (Yeh, 2016).
The hearing for an injunction is in early May and if found guilty Uber would have to stop the usage of those stolen files. Google is clearly not happy because it lost the competition, but if we look at the wider picture, self-driving car industry will end up better off (Ou, 2017). If true that he stole those files and used them for his gain in collaboration with Uber, then, in my opinion, he should get a punishment. I think it should have been up to Google only to share its technology and intellectual property, and an employee should not have committed a crime by stealing it and then selling it for his personal gains and better prospects.
Burke, K. (2017) Errant email lands Uber in court. Available at: http://www.autonews.com/article/20170227/MOBILITY/302279952/errant-email-lands-uber-in-court (Accessed: 13 April 2017)
Davies, A. (2017) Google Accuses Uber of Stealing Its Self-Driving Car Tech. Available at: https://www.wired.com/2017/02/googles-waymo-just-dropped-explosive-lawsuit-uber-stealing-self-driving-tech/. (Accessed: 13 April 2017)
Osterman Research, Inc. (2016) ‘Best Practices for Protecting Your Data When Employees Leave Your Company’. An Osterman Research White Paper. Druva. Available at: http://go.druva.com/rs/307-ANG-704/images/Best%20Practices%20for%20Protecting%20Your%20Data%20When%20Employees%20Leave%20Your%20Company%20-%20Druva.pdf (Accessed: 13 April 2017)
Ou, E. (2017) In Google’s fight with Uber, everyone is a loser. Available at: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/59y20KsZ4ObGz5IOhqU4GJ/In-Googles-fight-with-Uber-everyone-is-a-loser.html (Access: 13 April 2017)<br><br>
Wakabayashi, D. and Isaac, M. (2017) Uber Denies It Is Using Stolen Waymo Technology. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/07/business/uber-waymo-self-driving-car-technology.html (Accessed: 13 April 2017)
Yeh, B.T. (2016) ‘Protection of Trade Secrets: Overview of Current Law and Legislation’. CRS Report. Available at: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/secrecy/R43714.pdf (Accessed: 13 April 2017)