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A former executive of Google subsidiary Waymo has admitted stealing trade secrets and sharing them with Uber. 

Anthony Scott Levandowski has agreed in a legal progress update document to plead guilty to swiping secret information regarding self-driving car technology from Waymo. The 39-year-old former executive stands accused of downloading 14,000 files from Waymo and sharing their contents with Uber.

The files in question contained information regarding Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology developed by Waymo. LiDAR is a laser-based scanning and mapping technology that uses the reflection of laser beams off objects to create a real-time 3D image of the world. 

Levandowski, of Marin County, California, allegedly downloaded onto an external hard drive 9.7 GB of highly confidential data from an internal password-protected Google server known as “SVN,” which was hosted on Google’s network. He then uploaded the files onto his personal laptop and took them with him when he left Waymo to set up his own startup business, Ottomotto. 

Ottomotto, which develops hardware and software for autonomous driving, was acquired by Uber Technologies in 2016 for $680m. 

The theft of the files was discovered when a Waymo employee was inadvertently copied in on an email from one of its LiDAR component vendors. The email attached machine drawings of what purported to be an Uber LiDAR circuit board but which bore a striking resemblance to Waymo’s own highly confidential and proprietary design.

In a complaint filed against Ottomotto LLC, Otto Trucking LLC, and Uber Technologies Inc in the United States District Court in February 2017 by Waymo LLC, the plaintiff states: “Fair competition spurs new technical innovation, but what has happened here is not fair competition. Instead, Otto and Uber have taken Waymo’s intellectual property so that they could avoid incurring the risk, time, and expense of independently developing their own technology. 

“Ultimately, this calculated theft reportedly netted Otto employees over half a billion dollars and allowed Uber to revive a stalled program, all at Waymo’s expense.”

The complaint was settled in 2018, with Google accepting $245m of Uber stock. Then, in August 2019, the US Attorney’s office indicted Levandowski on 33 charges, including the theft and attempted theft of trade secrets. 

Levandowski’s plea deal proposes to admit guilt for only the charge of stealing a tracking document. Should the court accept his plea, Levandowski will face a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, plus restitution.

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