Former Waymo Engineer Pleads Guilty to Stealing Company Trade Secrets

(CN) — Anthony Levandowski, a former engineer who worked on autonomous vehicles, pleaded guilty Thursday to theft of trade secrets, ending a trial that pitted two of the largest technology companies — Google and Uber — against each other.

The guilty plea will put a punctuation mark on one of the most prominent trade secret cases in the modern era, as Silicon Valley continues to race each other to produce a self-driving car capable of maneuvering roadways as good, if not better than a human.

While Levandowski will face jail time and a large fine, it could have been much worse. Federal agents initially charged Levandowski with 33 counts of trade secret theft. On Thursday, he pleaded guilty to a single count.

Levandowski worked in Google as an engineer for the company’s offshoot focused on self-driving technology called Waymo.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

In 2016, Levandowski abruptly parted ways with Waymo, taking thousands of Google’s files with him to Uber to start a competing self-driving firm within that company.

Specifically, Levandowski was an integral part of Waymo’s Project Chauffeur, which was in a race with other companies to develop marketable self-driving technology.

According to the plea agreement released Thursday, Levandowski was apprised of the confidential nature of his work and aware he had signed confidentiality agreements.

Despite this, when Levandowski prepared to depart Google in December 2015, he downloaded and stored thousands of files with confidential proprietary information on it. Specifically, he scraped 14,000 files from Google’s internal, password-protected SVN server onto his work computer. Then he transferred the files from his work computer to his personal computer.

On top of the proprietary files, he also downloaded work from a Google Drive onto his personal computer, according to the plea agreement.

Within months of leaving Google, Levandowski founded a new self-driving technology startup called Otto, which was subsequently purchased by Uber.

In the plea, Levandowski admitted that he downloaded files from the internal drive of Google for the express purpose of benefiting himself and later Uber. One of the most important files, which gave periodic updates full of detailed information regarding the status of Google’s progress with self-driving technology, was downloaded after Levandowski resigned in 2015. Levandowski further admitted the document contained trade secrets.

The guilty plea comes on the heels of Levandowski filing for bankruptcy after a court held that he owed Google $1.79 million as a result of the contract dispute with Google.

The civil matter is still pending.

U.S. District Court Judge William Alsup presided over the criminal case and will formally sentence Levandowski during a hearing to be scheduled.

Levandowski’s guilty plea means he could face 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $25,000.

In a statement, attorney Miles Ehrlich said, “Mr. Levandowski accepts responsibility and is looking forward to resolving this matter. Mr. Levandowski is a young man with enormous talents and much to contribute to the fast-moving world of AI and AV and we hope that this plea will allow him to move on with his life and focus his energies where they matter most.”

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