Uber hired ex-CIA agents to infiltrate rival, former employee alleges

The federal judge overseeing Waymo's case against Uber said he can no longer "trust anything" Uber's lawyers say

Published November 28, 2017 6:06PM (EST)

 (AP/Eric Risberg)
(AP/Eric Risberg)

A federal lawsuit between Uber and rival autonomous vehicle maker Waymo has led to new revelations about Uber's infamously unscrupulous corporate culture. Richard Jacobs, Uber's former manager of global intelligence, alleged that Uber hired an espionage team comprised of former CIA agents to obtain “trade secrets, code-based & competitive intelligence,” according to a letter sent to the U.S. Justice Department, acquired by Quartz.

In the letter written by his lawyer, Jacobs said Uber created a secret unit in order to obtain trade secrets from its rivals, as reported by The Los Angeles Times. Under questioning, Jacobs then claimed Uber hired multiple contractors who “employed former CIA agents to help the ride-hailing company infiltrate its rivals' computers.”

Jacob's letter also claims that Uber "had a sophisticated strategy to conceal, cover up or destroy docs [with] intent to impede [government] investigations," according to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carolyn Said.

Though the document unequivocally alleges that Uber stole trade secrets from Waymo, Jacobs said in trial that his lawyer was mistaken, reportedly telling a Waymo attorney, “I disagree with this [claim] now. I have no firsthand knowledge. No knowledge at all.”

Uber's legal team's loose relationship with the truth displeased U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the Waymo-Uber trial. Judge Alsup called Jacobs’ letter “scandalous” and scolded Uber for not informing him before the Justice Department did, nearly a week after the letter was sent.

Judge Alsup also said Uber's "Market Analytics" unit, which allegedly exists solely for the purpose of corporate espionage, was “a ‘plumbers’ unit doing bad deeds.”

“I can't trust anything you say because it has been proven wrong so many times,” Alsup told Uber’s attorney, Arturo Gonzalez. “If even half of what is in that letter is true, it would be an injustice for Waymo to go to trial.”

As a result, the Waymo-Uber trial, which was scheduled to begin on December 4th, has been postponed indefinitely so that Waymo has ample time to gather more evidence. The Google subsidiary claims Uber duplicated their autonomous car after Uber purchased a self-driving startup owned by a former Waymo engineer, Anthony Levandowski. Waymo has alleged that Levandowksi shared trade secrets with his new employer.

It has been a trying year for Uber. In the wake of widespread sexual harassment allegations, Susan Fowler, a former engineer, alleged that Uber’s human resources division “systematically ignored” her and did not properly handle reports that a boss had sexually harassed her, according to Vanity Fair. The company responded by firing 20 employees.  Less than a month after the mass firings, Uber founder and longtime C.E.O. Travis Kalanick stepped down, facing pressure from major investors unhappy with the company’s performance and Kalanick's laissez-faire attitudes towards an internal company culture that was unwelcoming to women. In a GQ profile in 2014, Kalanick used the phrase "Boob-er" to describe how Uber had helped him pursue women.

Uber has been under fire lately after the recent revelation that, in October 2016, the company paid hackers $100,000 in ransom to prevent information on 57 million riders and drivers from being released on the internet. The company waited over a year to inform the public of this data breach. An investigation into that breach is now under the scrutiny of the Senate, who have requested further information on the hacking.

By Jennie Neufeld

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Corporate Espionage Lawsuits Travis Kalanick Uber Waymo