Waymo Struggles to Prove It Kept Trade Secrets Secure

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – On the fourth day of its trial against ride-hail giant Uber, autonomous car developer Waymo struggled to prove a trove of files stolen by a former engineer contained trade secrets for building the vehicles.

To win its case, the Google spinoff must prove in part that 14,000 files downloaded by engineer Anthony Levandowski before he resigned to work on driverless cars for Uber were actually trade secrets. A key factor in proving that is showing Waymo made “reasonable efforts” to keep what it claims are trade secrets, secret.

But in 2016, another Waymo engineer, Sasha Zbrozek, told the company’s lawyers during an investigation into Levandowski’s server activity that the files were “low value” enough that Waymo had considered hosting them on a third-party server. He also said the activity, called a “checkout,” didn’t “ring the alarm bells for me.”

Later, Zbrozek told them the investigation “has a chilling effect on being a hardware engineer. We all do full checkouts, and it makes me uncomfortable that lawyers are trying to ascribe suspicion to it.” Zbrozek designed the server.

Uber paints the lawsuit as an attempt by Waymo to put it out of business, as the two vie to be the first to launch self-driving cars for the ride-hail market. According to Uber, Google and Waymo executives became concerned when Levandowski and more than a dozen other engineers left Waymo for Uber, afraid they would use their technical know-how to help Uber beat it to the finish line.

“FYI – two people to Otto…need a plan…” wrote Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik in a July 2016 email to the company’s head of human resources.

According to Uber, Waymo’s plan started with investigating Levandowski’s departure – presumably for dirt – and learned of the downloads in the process. Waymo then used the dowloads to sue on bogus trade-secret claims, Uber says, revealing in court Thursday that the day before the lawsuit was filed a Waymo lawyer told Zbrozek that Google wanted him to say everything on the server was confidential.

Although Zbrozek told Waymo executives multiple times the information on the server was low-value, he walked back his evaluation Thursday, testifying in San Francisco federal court that the server “contains all the electronics we need for a self-driving car. Clearly there’s a lot of value there.”

He explained he doesn’t know what a trade secret is, seeming to suggest if the server had contained trade secrets, he wouldn’t have recognized them. Zbrozek added he didn’t flag the server’s content to his boss as “confidential” because he knew it was.

“That’s obvious. It’s not his first introduction to the system,” Zbrozek said.

Trying to establish that Waymo didn’t try to protect the files, Uber attorney Arturo Gonzalez with Morrison & Foerster hammered Zbrozek about the measures Google took to secure the server. He pointed out that each time an employee logs on, the entire repository is downloaded onto their computer.

At a hearing this past September, Gonzalez told presiding U.S. District Judge William Alsup that Levandowski inadvertently downloaded the 14,000 files for that reason when he logged on.

“Did anybody at Google say to you, ‘You know, Sasha, it’s not a good idea to have everything downloaded because we’ve got some trade secrets in here?” Gonzalez asked.

Then:  “You don’t know whether anyone monitors logins or checkouts.”

Zbrozek retorted: “No. But nobody monitors when you get water from the fridge either.”

Testimony from Waymo’s Pierre-Yves Droz also seemed to suggest Waymo didn’t try to safeguard its alleged trade secrets.

The hardware engineer described the measures Waymo takes to keep secret its designs for LiDAR – a laser-based scanning and mapping technology its driverless cars use to see their surroundings – including nondisclosure agreements with vendors and black domes on cars.

But on cross examination, Droz acknowledged he once took home an old LiDAR device and used it in an art installation for Burning Man, a festival held each summer in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

Waymo sued Uber and Ottomotto, an autonomous trucking company started by Levandowski, in February 2017. It claims Levandowski downloaded its proprietary files to his personal laptop in January 2016, and used them to start Ottomotto days later. The files include ones related to LiDAR.

Uber acquired Ottomotto for $680 million in August 2016, three months after the startup launched publicly. Waymo claims Levandowski and Uber’s senior executives conspired to form and acquire Ottomotto to get Waymo’s trade secrets after Uber’s driverless car project stalled.

Testimony continues Friday.

 

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