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Uber has a team dedicated to stealing trade secrets, ‘Jacobs letter’ alleges

A partially censored version of a letter has been released which details allegations of widespread illegal and unethical business practices at Uber.

Although partially redacted, the letter contains explicit descriptions of illegal and unethical operations carried out by dedicated teams at the company behind the popular ride-sharing service. Among other questionable practices, the letter said that trade secrets stolen from other companies were nailed “like a scalp” to the office wall.

In February 2017, Waymo opened proceedings against Uber, accusing the ride-sharing service of stealing trade secrets and infringing on its patents, with damages estimated at $1.9 billion. According to Waymo, a former Google engineer, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded 9.7GB of “highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation”, before resigning and founding Otto, a self-driving truck company which was later acquired by Uber.  

Uber has stated that none of Waymo’s designs have been used in its own car designs.

US District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the legal dispute, was notified of the incriminating letter by the US Department of Justice, which is opening a criminal investigation into Uber. Consequently, Uber was forced to hand the letter over to Alsup.

The 37 page letter – which has already been discussed in court – has now been released by John Cooper, special master. Cooper reprimanded Uber for keeping the letter from court.

“This needle was in Uber’s hands in the whole time,” said Cooper. The letter was written in May 2017 to an Uber lawyer from the lawyer of a former Uber employee, Richard Jacobs, ex-manager of global intelligence, who was allegedly demoted after refusing to engage in unethical and illicit activities. The letter could be easily accessed by Uber executives, Cooper said.

According to the “Jacobs letter”, Uber’s Threat Operations (ThreatOps) group has a unit – the marketplace analytics team – which “exists expressly for the purpose of acquiring trade secrets, codebase, and competitive intelligence.”  The letter states that Uber did steal trade secrets from Waymo, although under testimony in court in November, Jacobs denied that this was true.

It said that the marketplace analytics team “fraudulently impersonates riders and drivers on competitor platforms, hacks into competitor networks and conducts unlawful wiretapping” to obtain trade secrets about competitor’s apps and their vulnerabilities and supply information, including unique driver information.

A second unit, the strategic services group, allegedly “frequently engages in fraud and theft, and employed third-party vendors to obtain unauthorised data or information.”

According to the Jacobs letter, the team conducted virtual operations using non-attributable devices to impersonate protestors, drivers and taxi operators, and to store information collected from politicians, regulators, law enforcement, taxi organisations and trade unions, including from WhatsApp groups and private Facebook groups.

The letter describes surveillance operations directed by former CEO Travis Kalanick, such as illegally recording meetings with regulators and conversations executives of rival companies at a hotel. The letter also named head of security, Joe Sullivan, and legal director, Craig Clark – who have been sacked over their concealment of a huge data breach affecting nearly 60 million users and drivers – as key figures in the shady operations.

Representatives for Sullivan and Clark have stated that they acted “ethically” and “appropriately” at Uber.

Uber had also implemented a strategy, the Jacobs letter says, to “destroy, conceal, cover up and falsify records or documents with the intent to impede or obstruct government investigations.”

The company behind the popular ride-sharing service has been troubled by numerous scandals and consequent setbacks, including accusations of an aggressive and misogynistic workplace culture and reports that its “Greyball” software has been used to evade law enforcement officials. Last week, York became the third British city to refuse to renew Uber’s operating license, following London and Sheffield.

In June 2017, Travis Kalanick stood down as CEO of Uber, accused of having failed to respond to allegations of sexual harassment in the company.

In August 2017, Dara Khosrowshahi stepped into the role of CEO, and has sought to distance himself from the previous leadership. In a statement in response to the release of the Jacobs letter, Uber said that: “our new leadership has made clear that going forward we will compete honestly and fairly, on the strength of our ideas and technology”.

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