In a federal case dating back to 2017, former Google and Uber engineer Anthony Levandowski was charged this month with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets.
The indictment came down from a federal grand jury on August 15 and was unsealed Tuesday, and the 39-year-old Levandowski turned himself in at the federal courthouse in San Jose, as the Chronicle reports.
Levandowski had been on the secretive team at Alphabet/Google that was working on the autonomous car project called Waymo when he decamped for a job at Uber in the summer of 2016. At the time, Uber bought Levandowski's self-driving truck startup, Otto, that he purportedly had been working on outside of his job at Alphabet, for the staggering price of $680 million.
In February 2017, Alphabet announced it was pursuing legal action against Uber and Levandowski following an investigation in which it says it found that Levandowski had downloaded over 14,000 files onto an external hard drive before departing the company. Those files, some 9.7 gigabytes worth, included highly confidential "blueprints, design files and testing documentation" for the LiDAR technology and circuitboard that underpin autonomous vehicles.
They further alleged that Levandowski had "wiped and reformatted the laptop in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints."
As the New York Times explains today, "It is not uncommon for tech companies, which fiercely guard their intellectual property, to sue former employees or the firms they join after they leave. But criminal charges of a senior executive for theft is unusual."
Levandowski's attorneys contend that any downloads he made occurred while he was authorized to do so as an employee, and "None of these supposedly secret files ever went to Uber or to any other company."
The prosecution of Levandowski follows a settlement that was made early last year between Alphabet and Uber. The trade-secrets case, stemming from the Levandowski investigation, went to trial but was then quickly settled in Feb. 2018 when Uber agreed to pay Alphabet with 0.34 percent of its stock. The case, as the Times noted, revealed to the public some of the inner workings of Silicon Valley and the "costly competition for engineering talent."
During last year's trial, one of Uber's attorneys said, "Uber regrets ever bringing Anthony Levandowski on board. All Uber has to show for Anthony Levandowski is this lawsuit."
Levandowski, a 2004 graduate of UC Berkeley, now faces the possibility of millions in fines and a maximum of 10 years in prison.
But, as he told the Guardian in December, he's still been hard at work in the realm of autonomous vehicles. He started yet another company, Pronto.AI, and claims to have taken a cross-country trip from San Francisco to New York in a self-driving Prius entirely without ever intervening. The company has said in a statement that this was accomplished without LiDAR technology, and only using cameras and computers.
You can watch a time-lapse video of that trip below, complete with strange narration about "going all the way" and "fighting the good fight."