One time Google/Alphabet employee Anthony Levandowski, who jumped ship to take a generous offer from Uber in 2016 that included $680 million for his self-driving truck startup Otto, has just been sentenced to 18 months in jail for stealing trade secrets.
The case dates back to February 2017, when employees at Alphabet's self-driving car startup Waymo discovered that Levandowski had absconded with 9.7 gigabytes of files that belonged to the company — including blueprints for their proprietary LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) technology developed for autonomous vehicles. The company filed suit against Levandowski, Otto, and Uber for trade-secret theft, and for a couple of months Uber adamantly denied any wrongdoing.
The employees who investigated Levandowski's illicit downloads, which he did with some difficulty just before leaving the company, said in a Medium post that they were tipped by a mistaken CC from a LiDAR vendor. The email included an attached design for an Uber LiDAR circuitboard that contained technology that was secret and owned by Waymo.
By late April 2017, though, Levandowski was out at Uber, two weeks before the case spawned a criminal investigation. In August 2019, federal authorities charged Levandowski with 33 counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets. And fast-forward to March of this year, Levandowski pleaded guilty to one count, after three years of legal wrangling. (Uber settled out of court with Alphabet for $245 million in 2018.)
On Tuesday, Levandowski was given his sentence, and he's all about contrition now. As the New York Times reports, his lawyers wrote in a court filing, "He proposes to offer himself as an object lesson in ‘what not to do,’ by candidly sharing the story of his misdeeds. His message is clear: taking a trade secret to the next venture is a ‘life-altering terrible decision,’ never worth it."
Levandowski himself issued a statement saying, "Today marks the end of three and a half long years and the beginning of another long road ahead. I’m thankful to my family and friends for their continued love and support during this difficult time."
Perhaps he should feel lucky only getting 18 months in the slammer — one count of trade-secret theft came with a possible 10-year sentence, and a representative for Waymo said in a victim statement that he should receive a "substantial period of incarceration."
Levandowski is also now on the hook for a $756,499 payment to Waymo, and a $95,000 fine. In a separate case in San Francisco County court in early March, Levandowski was ordered to pay $179 million in damages to Waymo. He also filed for bankruptcy protection in March because of that, citing that he had $50 million to $100 million in personal assets — not enough to pay the arbitrated settlement.
Naturally, Levandowski's legal team resorted to a Silicon Valley cliché in their statement to the court, saying, "Anthony deeply regrets his past decisions and, while we are saddened that he will to have to spend time in prison, Anthony remains committed to his life’s mission of building innovative technologies to improve people’s lives."