SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Federal prosecutors are investigating allegations that Uber deployed an espionage team to plunder trade secrets from its rivals, triggering a delay in a high-profile trial over whether the beleaguered ride-hailing service stole self-driving car technology from a Google spinoff.
The criminal probe being conducted by the U.S. Justice Department centers on information contained in a 37-page letter that Uber’s former manager of global intelligence sent in May to a company lawyer. The investigation hadn’t been publicly known until Tuesday, when it surfaced in a court hearing that was supposed to set the stage for a trial pitting Uber against Waymo, a self-driving car pioneer that started within Google eight years ago.
The hearing instead quickly turned into a forum raising more questions about the ethics and conduct of Uber. Over the past year, Uber has been rocked by revelations of rampant sexual harassment inside the company, technological trickery designed to thwart regulators and a yearlong cover-up of a hacking attack that stole the personal information of 57 million passengers and 600,000 drivers.
Richard Jacobs, the former Uber manager whose lawyer wrote the letter at the center of the courtroom drama, testified Tuesday that Uber had up a secret unit to steal trade secrets from its rivals overseas. He didn’t specify which competitors that Uber had been targeting, but said some of the stolen information involved drivers. His allegations had been kept under seal since the U.S. Justice Department passed them along to U.S. District Judge William Alsup last week.
Pressed under questioning, Jacobs acknowledged the letter also alleged that Uber had stolen trade secrets from Waymo and other intellectual property in the U.S. But Jacobs said that his lawyer was mistaken in making that allegation.
He insisted he didn’t know anything about Uber’s espionage team trying to steal from anything in the U.S.
Alsup described the allegations in the letter as “scandalous” and lashed out at Uber’s legal team for not informing him about them before he was notified by the Justice Department.