Friday, 25 August 2017


Waymo, the self-driving car subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has accused one of its former engineers of stealing thousands of confidential documents before joining Uber’s self-driving team. Uber maintains it was unaware that the former Waymo employee, Anthony Levandowski, had allegedly downloaded 14,000 documents from Google's autonomous vehicle unit before leaving to launch his own start up, Otto, which Uber later acquired.

Waymo and Uber are racing to develop the first network of self-driving cars, to create what would be a potentially huge (and profitable) transportation service in the future. The crucial Intellectual Property (IP) that was allegedly stolen involves ‘LiDAR’, a new type of laser system that allows the cars to see roads and obstacles around them.

Waymo is suing Uber, seeking an injunction preventing it from using their LiDAR design in the development of self-driving cars. Waymo argues that, as part of the Otto acquisition, Uber conducted a due diligence investigation  "designed specifically to uncover, or confirm, the downloaded Waymo files in Otto's or Levandowski's possession". Uber refutes this, arguing that their LiDAR design is different from Waymo’s, and stating that "no Uber employee is aware of Levandowski ever using any Google proprietary information in the performance of his duties at [Otto] or Uber"

Last month, Judge William Alsup ordered an injunction preventing Uber from continuing to test some, but not all, of their LiDAR designs ahead of the main trial in October, commenting that "The bottom line is the evidence indicates that Uber hired Levandowski even though:

  • it knew or should have known that he possessed over 14,000 confidential Waymo files likely containing Waymo's intellectual property,

  • at least some information from those files, if not the files themselves, has seeped into Uber's own LiDAR development efforts, and

  • at least some of said information likely qualifies for trade secret protection.

Levandowski has now been dismissed by Uber, which has cited his failure to fulfil an agreement to return or destroy all property and confidential information belonging to any prior employer as the reason for the dismissal.

Lessons to be learnt

This lawsuit illustrates the importance of establishing clear protocols around employee departures and new starters, in order to protect valuable IP, ensure ethical conduct and minimise the risk of litigation.


For high risk employees such as Levandowski, who have access to, or even produce, commercially sensitive IP, even more stringent controls may be necessary.

Waymo’s departure checks and Uber’s new starter protocols both seem to have been ineffective in this case. With the trial set for October, these mistakes may prove very costly in one or both companies’ pursuit of the autonomous vehicle market.

Information security and digital forensics checks have a role to play in ensuring that access to company systems is disabled in a timely matter and analysis is performed on employee activities regularly to identify suspect behaviour. Outsourcing this aspect to experienced cyber forensic specialists has the added advantage that they are:

  • independent from the dismissal process and can therefore avoid accusations of bias or tampering during the investigation process
  • able to provide an independent assessment of IT systems
  • experienced in the analysis of operating systems and network artefacts to detect red flags
  • capable expert witnesses that can provide reliable testimony should the matter proceed to a court or tribunal process.

This case serves as a timely reminder that companies need to check that they have sufficient policies and procedures to protect IP and that those policies are enforced appropriately to reduce the risks and costs potentially arising from litigation.