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Former Waymo and Uber engineer jailed for trade secret theft

Anthony Levandowski - a leading figure in Google’s autonomous driving unit before moving to Uber - has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for trade secret theft in the latest episode of Silicon Valley’s highest-profile criminal saga.

In 2009, Levandowski co-founded Google’s autonomous driving program (now known as Waymo) and served as its technical lead until 2016. He then co-founded an autonomous trucking company, Otto, which he quickly sold to Uber before becoming head of Uber’s autonomous driving operations.

Levandowski was subsequently fired from Uber as a legal battle arose between Waymo and Uber, with Waymo alleging theft of trade secrets. According to this civil lawsuit, Levandowski downloaded 9.7GB of Waymo’s confidential files and secrets to his laptop – including blueprints, design files and testing documentation – before leaving to establish Otto. During this lawsuit, prosecutors began a criminal investigation into Levandowski, ultimately indicting him on 33 charges of theft of trade secrets.

Levandowski pleaded guilty to one of the 33 charges – for downloading a project-tracking document described as a “game plan” – and has now been sentenced to 18 months in prison. He must also pay $756,499.22 in restitution to Waymo, in addition to a $95,000 fine. The other 32 charges were dismissed.

Speaking in court, Levandowski apologised to his former Google colleagues, saying: “I can’t change what I did, but I can learn from my mistakes.”

The sentence was passed by US District Judge William Alsup, who has been overseeing Silicon Valley cases for decades. Judge Alsup described Levandowski’s actions as “the biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen”. Alsup said that Levandowski was a “brilliant, ground-breaking engineer” who had been tempted to do “terrible things” by the possible financial incentive of billions of dollars.

Levandowski argued that he had suffered from recent bouts of pneumonia and could die from Covid-19 in prison, requesting instead a sentence of 12 months of confinement at his Marin County home. His prosecutors, on the other hand, argued for a 27-month jail sentence for his “brazen theft”.

Judge Alsup agreed with the prosecution that in white-collar cases such as these, deterrence is of upmost importance and a non-custodial sentence would be a “green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets”. He said that Levandowski would begin his sentence once the coronavirus pandemic had peaked and also ordered Levandowski to speak publicly about his crimes to deter other engineers from similar behaviour.

“Today marks the end of three-and-a-half long years and the beginning of another long road ahead,” Levandowski said in a statement.

Since being sacked by Uber, Levandowski has not been idle: he founded another autonomous trucking company which makes safety systems; filed for bankruptcy due to owning $179m to Google; and founded a religion based around worship of an AI God.

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