Ex-Google engineer sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing autonomous car secrets

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Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing autonomous car secrets.

Levandowski was employed by Google’s self-driving car division Waymo when he transferred over 14,000 secret files to his laptop before leaving the company.

The stolen files were taken to Uber, where Levandowski led the firm’s own robotaxi project. US District Judge William Alsup called Levandowski’s actions the “biggest trade secret crime I have ever seen”.

Uber claims it wasn’t aware of the stolen files and fired Levandowski in 2017. Levandowski filed a motion in April to arbitrate Uber in a bid to cover the $179 million lawsuit against him.

When Uber acquired self-driving truck startup Otto in 2016, the company reportedly signed an indemnity agreement which agreed to compensate Levandowski against claims brought forward by his former employer. “Uber eats injunctions for breakfast,” Uber CEO Travis Kalanick allegedly told Levandowski.

Levandowski filed for bankruptcy in March due to the $179 million sum owed to Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“Billions [of dollars] in the future were at play and – when those kinds of financial incentives are there – good people will do terrible things,” said Judge Alsup. “That’s what happened here.”

Levandowski pleaded guilty to avoid the up to 10 years in prison he could have faced. However, the engineer hoped to be sentenced to 12 months’ confinement in his San Francisco home.

Making the case for home confinement, Levandowski said he had pneumonia and could die from COVID-19 in prison. Judge Alsup ruled that Levandowski can begin his sentence after the pandemic has peaked.

Issuing a non-custodial sentence would be a “green light to every future brilliant engineer to steal trade secrets,” Judge Alsup said.

Prosecutors aimed for a 27-month sentence, so – in that sense – Levandowski has got off lightly.

(Image Credit: MCE 2016 by Transport Topics under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

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