Former Employee Uses Stolen Files to Develop Self-Driving Car with Competitor

When a self-driving car engineer left the company Waymo, he decided to take more than 14,000 confidential files with him.

As self-driving car technology continues to improve, Uber stands to significantly reduce costs and improve margins by utilizing these advancements. The transportation company came onto the scene with such force that its very name became synonymous with industry innovation and evolution.

Uber, however, has experienced a string of PR nightmares. First came accusations from the Google self-driving car project – now known as Waymo – that Uber was developing its own self-driving cars using designs stolen by a former Google engineer. Last week, a judge denied Uber’s request to move the case to arbitration (and out of the public eye). Now a federal judge has ruled that Uber must promptly return the stolen materials to Waymo.

 

How did this happen?

Waymo engineer Anthony Levandowski left the company in early 2016 in order to start his own business developing self-driving trucks. His start-up was soon acquired by Uber and together they continued work on developing an autonomous car system.

Waymo was later contacted by a supplier about the subject and discovered that design elements of Uber’s circuit board were extremely similar to Waymo’s. They then began investigating, and have accused Uber of knowing of Levandowski’s theft prior to acquiring his company.

They explained their process in a note published on Medium in February:

We found that six weeks before his resignation this former employee, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo’s LiDAR and circuit board. To gain access to Waymo’s design server, Mr. Levandowski searched for and installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop. Once inside, he downloaded 9.7 GB of Waymo’s highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation. Then he connected an external drive to the laptop. Mr. Levandowski then wiped and reformatted the laptop in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints.

 

What can we learn from this?

The entire story accentuates the importance of internal document security. It all has stemmed from of one employee downloading tens of thousands of documents and then jumping ship. While unauthorized access to downloading of documents from internal personnel has become a real issue, it is also extremely preventable.

IT software is available to monitor and block suspicious employee activity – like downloading excessive files, accessing confidential files and attempting to override explicit or implicit security – and sends near-real-time alerts to administrators. Had Waymo utilized this kind of solution, they could have taken action when the downloads first happened (around December 2015), instead of recovering from its aftermath to this day.

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