TECH

Judge delays trial after ex-Uber employee describes rogue behavior

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SAN FRANCISCO—US District Judge William Alsup has delayed an upcoming trial, Waymo v. Uber, in which Alphabet’s self-driving car division has accused Uber of massive data theft.

The postponement came as a former Uber security employee, Richard Jacobs, made startling accusations in court Tuesday about his former colleagues’ tactics of what he dubbed "overly aggressive and invasive" actions, including seeking code accidentally made available on GitHub and internal use of "ephemeral and encrypted" communications including through Wickr and "non-attributable machines."

The case began back in February, when Waymo sued Uber and accused one of its own former employees, Anthony Levandowski, of stealing 14,000 files shortly before he left Waymo and went on to found a company that was quickly acquired by Uber. The case will likely have a huge impact on the future of autonomous vehicles and who will emerge dominant in the field.

The lawsuit has been thrown into chaos as federal prosecutors suddenly—and highly unusually—sent a still-sealed November 22 letter to the judge about their investigation. Judge Alsup had previously referred possible criminal behavior by Uber to be examined by prosecutors. In a public Monday evening filing, Waymo asked that the trial date be put off.

The letter from the United States Attorney’s Office refers to what has been dubbed the "Jacobs Letter," written in May 2017 by Clayton Halunen, a Minnesota lawyer who represented Richard Jacobs. Jacobs worked for Uber’s Strategic Services Group, a now-disbanded secretive intelligence division within the company. Both letters remain sealed.

Waymo wrote in its Monday filing that the new revelations demand "further detailed and lengthy investigation to discover the extent to which [redacted] in the Jacobs Letter relates to Waymo’s trade secret claims and spoliation arguments here."

"You don’t get taught how to deal with this problem in law school," Alsup said during the Tuesday hearing. "In 25 years of practice and 18 years in this job I have never seen such a problem."

Alsup then immediately called for Jacobs to take the stand for an evidentiary hearing, which he did.

Charles Verhoeven, Waymo’s head lawyer, began questioning Jacobs about that letter, quoting from one portion that read, "Jacobs is aware that Uber used the MA [Marketplace Analytics] team to steal trade secrets at least from Waymo in the United States," and another portion, saying, "MA exists expressly for the purpose of acquiring trade secrets, code base, and competitive intelligence."

Marketplace Analytics is an Uber division that provides information about Uber’s "competitive landscape."

Jacobs eventually responded that he had not fully read his own lawyer’s letter: "I don’t think I did as thorough a job as I wish I could have," and disputed his lawyer’s characterization of his own activities and those of his colleagues as "hyperbolic."

However, Jacobs questioned Uber’s actions. The ex-employee said he left the company earlier this year and was paid a previously undisclosed $4.5 million settlement. Jacobs remains a paid consultant to the company as a way of assisting investigations of previous wrongdoing at Uber.

This story is breaking. Please check back for updates.

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