US Attorney considers spying in Waymo vs Uber

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Judge William Alsup in San Francisco made the referral in an order posted Thursday night.

A rare order from a federal judge alerting prosecutors to possible criminal misconduct by Uber or a key executive deepens the turmoil swirling around the ride-hailing company at a time when it's grappling with other legal and image problems.

Uber buys Otto, acquiring Levandowski in the process. The ride services company failed to remove the ongoing case from public view and now faces the prospect of getting caught up in a fresh criminal probe. Uber did not deny the allegations, and Levandowski's attempt to assert his Fifth Amendment rights added more fuel to the fire.

The Alphabet unit asked Alsup to issue an injunction preventing Uber from using Waymo's trade secrets, and Levandowski from working on Lidar. Waymo also claimed that Uber infringed certain Waymo-owned patents.

Uber has said in court that it never possessed and used any information Levandowski allegedly took from Waymo.

LiDAR technology, which is one of the key parts of a lawsuit Waymo has leveled against Uber, relies on laser beams to bounce off a car's surroundings, essentially helping the self-driving auto to "see" other cars, pedestrians and obstacles in its path. The judge also referred Waymo's claims that Uber misappropriated its self-driving technology to the U.S. Attorney's office, based on an evidentiary record the judge (uncharacteristically) kept under seal, and partially granted Waymo's bid for a preliminary injunction to stop Uber from using its tech.

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Waymo, Google's autonomous auto company, sued Uber earlier this year claiming that its former self-driving vehicle expert - Anthony Levandowski - had stolen 14,000 files related to Google's proprietary LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology before starting a company, Otto, which Uber bought last summer for $670 million US. "We remain confident in our case and welcome the chance to talk about our independently developed technology in any forum", Niki Christoff, a spokeswoman for the company, said in a statement.

In addition, Alsup denied Uber's request to move the case to arbitration.

The team behind Waymo are arguing that before leaving Google, Levandowski downloaded 14,000 documents from Waymo servers in order to start his own company.

Waymo's lawyer pointed out that Levandowski isn't a defendant in the case. But Judge Alsup read them as implicit accusations - and found them to be "unwarranted".

In a statement, Waymo, part of Alphabet Inc., called Uber's arbitration request a "desperate bid" to avoid the court.

The judge overseeing a court case levied against Uber by Waymo over the alleged theft of trade secrets has recommended that federal prosecutors also investigate the matter. However, an Uber employee who's worked alongside Levandowski for years says that there's a second, hush-hush version of Uber's autonomous system that does, in fact, employ Waymo's designs.

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