Wanna Buy a Trade Secret?: Former Google engineer faces criminal charges for stealing trade secrets

September 20, 2019

2 min read

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What's going on here?

Anthony Levandowski (a former engineer at Google) has been charged with 33 counts of attempted theft of trade secrets.

What does this mean?

The criminal charge was referred by a federal judge overseeing the lawsuit that Waymo filed against Uber back in February 2017. The original lawsuit was filed by Alphabet (Google’s parent company) against Uber, alleging that Levandowski had stolen trade secrets from Alphabet’s self-driving company Waymo.

These stolen files included designs for “Light Detection and Ranging (or LiDAR), a technology which is seen as essential to self-driving tech. Levandowski also allegedly fled with a number of Waymo’s employees to Uber and created a competing autonomous technologies startup called Otto, which he then sold to Uber for $680 million in 2016. However, Uber and Waymo reached a settlement over the issue.

The latest charges state that Levandowski allegedly stole 14,000 documents from Google on his laptop, containing proprietary information about its self-driving cars. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 330 years in prison and $8 million in fines for all 33 counts brought against him.

What's the big picture effect?

These charges come as a warning to Silicon Valley and the “move fast and break things” culture that exists there, in the name of technological progress. It also highlights that prosecutors may scrutinise moving to competitors where there’s sensitive technology involved. 

Jacob Frenkel (a former senior counsel at the Securities and Exchange Commissions) says that this indictment shows “the willingness of federal prosecutors to now charge criminally what historically and traditionally might have been viewed as only as a civil non-compete dispute”. It also emphasises to current and aspiring technologists that questionable behaviour regarding intellectual property is extremely risky.

Furthermore, this change in approach clarifies current US politics and priorities. The indictment reflects the Trump administration’s desire to enhance the protection of US intellectual property and provide more resources to pursue and prosecute alleged theft. FBI agent John Bennett stated in a press conference that “the FBI will continue to stand in the breach to make sure our economy and our companies have the ability to compete on the world platform and it would remain a priority for the bureau”. 

The Justice Department has encouraged companies to report more digital crimes, including intellectual-property theft, and has positioned itself as a partner rather than a foe of the tech companies. However, it is yet to be seen whether Silicon Valley will use this new-found friend to keep competition fair or will they turn into frenemies by the end. In the fast-paced, competitive environment that is Silicon Valley, companies may have to be extra protective of their trade secrets because the risks and consequences of getting caught are getting bigger.

Report written by Maab Saifeldin

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