The US Department of Justice has filed criminal charges against a former Google employee for stealing trade secrets from the tech juggernaut before he joined ride-sharing giant Uber.
Self-driving car technology pioneer Anthony Levandowski has been charged with 33 counts of trade secrets theft.
The indictment is an offshoot of a lawsuit filed two years ago by Waymo, Google’s self-driving car spin-off, which alleged he stole trade secrets before creating his own self-driving car company Otto that was eventually bought by Uber.
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Uber had agreed to settle the case for US$245 million, but the judge recommended opening a criminal probe given that there was enough evidence to conclude a theft could have occurred.
Prosecutors are accusing Levandowski of stealing material in 2015 and 2016 relating to Waymo’s self-driving car technology and are alleging the stolen material included details relating to a crucial sensor technology called Lidar.
Each count of theft carries a penalty of a decade in prison and a US$250,000 (A$370,126) fine, or US$8.25 million (A$12.21 million) if Levandowski is convicted of all counts.
Levandowski’s lawyers said they look forward to maintaining his innocence in trial.
“He didn’t steal anything, from anyone,” said Miles Ehrlich, one of Levandowski’s attorneys.
“This case rehashes claims already discredited in a civil case that settled more than a year.”
The downloaded materials occurred while Levandowski was still working at Alphabet and that he was authorised to use the information, his lawyers said.
For Uber, self-driving technology is crucial to survival, and views efforts by competitors working on robotic vehicles as threats.
Levandowski is expected to appear in federal court in San Jose, California on Tuesday.
At a news conference, US attorney David Anderson said all people were free to change jobs.
“But what we cannot do is stuff our pockets on the way out the door.”
A Waymo spokesperson said in a statement: “We have always believed competition should be fuelled by innovation.”
– with wires
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