Self-Driving Car Maker Sentenced to Prison for Stealing Trade Secrets From Google

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, left, and Anthony Levandowski, co-founder of Otto, pose for a 2016 photo in the lobby of Uber headquarters in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Anthony Levandowski, a visionary engineer in self-driving car technology, was sentenced Tuesday to 18 months in federal prison for swiping upwards of 14,000 proprietary documents from his former employer Google before he left to start his own company. 

Levandowski, 40, worked in Google as an engineer for the company’s offshoot focused on self-driving technology called Waymo, where he headed its self-driving car project dubbed Project Chauffeur.

In 2016, Levandowski abruptly parted ways with Waymo, taking thousands of Google’s files with him to form his own company called Ottomotto, which was later acquired by Uber. 

“This was not a small crime,” U.S. District Judge William Alsup said at Levandowski’s sentencing hearing Tuesday. “This was the biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen. This was massive in scale.”

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 and that he intended to use it to his own benefit. 

Federal agents initially charged Levandowski with 33 counts of trade secret theft. In March, he pleaded guilty to a single count.

Alsup, who studied to be a civil engineer before turning to law, said he had tremendous respect for Levandowski. 

“Mr. Levandowski is a brilliant, groundbreaking engineer that our country needs. We particularly need those people with vision,” he said. 

Levandowski’s attorneys had asked for 12 months of home confinement, a fine of $95,000, and that Levandowski be required to give 12 speeches about his crime and resulting prosecution to aspiring engineers.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Katherine Wawrzyniak said deterrence should play an outsized role in fashioning an appropriate sentence, especially in an industry pervaded by hubris and greed.

“This was a brazen theft and it still shocks the conscience today,” she said. “His elite status in the industry is what makes this conduct all the more shocking and inexplicable. There shouldn’t be two systems of justice for this country, one for the well to do and one for everyone else.”

Alsup agreed, telling Levandowski’s counsel Ismail Ramsey that by requesting probation, “You’re giving a green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets where billions of dollars are on the line. Prison time is the answer to that. Somebody who deserves prison time ought to get prison time,” he said.

Alsup said he would like to send a message to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs weighing the risks and benefits of trade secret theft. 

“I am required to give a sentence that when someone else in Mr Levandowski’s position a few years from now who is considering stealing trade secrets and going off to start a competing company will be deterred from that. And what would be the deterrent’s message from what happens here today? Will it be even if you get caught, which is not always possible, you’ll get home confinement? I’ll tell you most of those people will take that risk.”

Ramsey said the government submitted no evidence that the stolen trade secrets were used by Ottomotto or Uber, an argument Alsup said was a stretch. 

“It’s probably true the Uber design was going to be different from the Waymo design and that much of what was in those files turned out to be not too relevant. But there was still material in those files that would be useful for a competitor to know,” Alsup said. “Having the competitor’s game plan, any football coach in America would love that.”

In addition to the 18 months, Levandowski will be required to pay a $95,000 fine and $756,499 in restitution to Waymo. He will also be required to give speeches entitled “Why I Went to Federal Prison.” 

Levandowski’s next court date is set for Feb. 9, 2021. He will not be required to self-surrender until after the Covid-19 pandemic abates.

“I don’t want him to go to prison until Covid-19 is under control,” Alsup said. “If it takes even a year for him to self surrender, that’s ok with me until we get the prison safe.”

Alsup was flooded with letters from Levandowski’s family, friends, and colleagues ahead of his sentencing Tuesday, extolling his intelligence, kind-heart and vision of a world made safer by self-driving cars. 

His mother wrote a letter relaying the good deeds of his childhood, like when at age six he convinced a friend to return a toy car he had stolen from a store, or when as a teenager, he saved a young girl from drowning in Corsica.

Levandowski also has the support of longtime friend Jibril Jackson, the CEO of social networking start-up HYVE. They met at University High School where they were both on the basketball team, and though they lost touch when Jackson went off to college, he said they reunited when Jackson later moved to Los Angeles and tried to start a new company.

In his letter to Alsup, Jackson, who is Black, noted the adversity that engineers and entrepreneurs of color face when trying to fund their Silicon Valley ventures. He said Levandowski was an early champion and matched his investment in HYDE.

“The Valley exalts engineers, but it is ruled by managers and investors. They don’t have the ability to evaluate our work, so they rely exclusively on proxies. And their proxies tend to overlook engineers of color,” Jackson wrote. 

“To understand why, imagine that working in your field depended on securing funding from a group of people who doubt your competence as a rule and have neither the ability nor the appetite to conduct due diligence. Anthony’s engagement was the first time anyone both white and pedigreed was willing to kick the tires on my code.”

Jackson said he believes his friend has learned from his mistake, adding, “I can attest to the fact that this situation has been a wake-up call for Anthony.”

In his own letter to Alsup, Levandowski said he regretted his actions, which wrecked his professional reputation and decimated his finances. Since pleading guilty in March, Levandowski has also filed for bankruptcy.

“These last three and a half years have been a grueling lesson in humility, responsibility, and remorse, and I feel a great deal of shame and guilt for not only what I have done, but for the harm that it has caused those around me,” he wrote.

Levandowski reiterated his remorse in court on Tuesday, telling Alsup, “I apologize to colleagues at Google for betraying their trust and to my entire family for the price they will continue to pay for my actions. I can’t change what I did but I can learn from my mistakes and not repeat them. I can tell you with 100 % certainty that I will never come close to breaking the law again.”

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