Federal prosecutors announced charges Tuesday against a former Google executive and self-driving car visionary, accusing him of stealing 14,000 documents containing company secrets and taking them with him when he went to work for rival Uber.
The grand jury indictment against Anthony Scott Levandowski resounded across Silicon Valley, where tech heavies had been watching the two internet giants duke it out in civil litigation but where the Justice Department’s willingness to file criminal charges sent shock waves.
“All of us have the right to change jobs,” said U.S. Attorney David L. Anderson. “None of us has the right to fill our pockets on the way out the door. Theft is not innovation.”
Mr. Anderson brought 33 charges of theft or attempted theft of trade secrets against Mr. Levandowski. Each charge carries a possible sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Analysts said tech companies — and employees, for whom jumping companies is standard — will be watching as the case heads toward trial.
“There is always tension between employee mobility and trade secret protection, but this may have a chilling effect on employee mobility,” said Jonathan Handel, a technology law professor at the University of Southern California.
Mr. Levandowski helped Google pioneer its self-driving car initiative for nearly a decade and eventually ended up in charge of its work in Lidar, or light detection and ranging, which is a key tool for self-driving vehicles to sense what else is on the road.
Prosecutors said he began his double-dealing in 2012 by secretly launching a company working on its own Lidar sensor. By late 2015, that company was in talks with Uber and Mr. Levandowski was talking with the ride-hailing pioneer about yet another company he was forming, Ottomotto LLC.
Anticipating his departure, prosecutors said, Mr. Levandowski began to download the documents in question — some 14,000 files that, Google’s self-driving car affiliate Waymo says, totaled nearly 10 gigabytes of data.
Within months, Uber made up the ground it had taken Google nine years to cover, the company says.
Mr. Levandowski’s attorneys rebutted the allegations, saying he has been a visionary in the industry for more than a decade and suggesting that, not stolen documents, was responsible for his success.
Miles Ehrlich and Ismail Ramsey, the defense attorneys, acknowledged in a statement that Mr. Levandowski downloaded documents, but they said that happened while he was still working at Google and they were authorized. The lawyers said nothing was shared with Uber or any other company.
“He didn’t steal anything, from anyone,” the lawyers said in a statement.
Waymo, the Google affiliate, offered proof of theft in a 2017 civil lawsuit against Uber, saying it learned it had sprung a leak after one of its vendors copied it on an email that included machine drawings of an Uber circuit board — which looked a lot like Waymo’s proprietary design.
Waymo said it discovered Mr. Levandowski had hooked up an external hard drive to his company laptop for eight hours and then wiped his laptop clean in an effort to hide his activities.
Mr. Levandowski resigned suddenly from Google on Jan. 27, 2016, and soon started working for Uber, which acquired the companies he founded.
Though Mr. Levandowski wasn’t named as a defendant in Waymo’s civil lawsuit, which the two companies settled last year, he was the central figure.
Mr. Levandowski, during depositions in that lawsuit, repeatedly asserted his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent so as not to incriminate himself.
Uber fired him in May 2017.
Elizabeth A. Rowe, director of the intellectual property law program at the University of Florida, said the Justice Department has grown increasingly active in policing trade secrets cases, particularly in instances of tech companies.
“In that context, it was only a matter of time before Levandowski was going to get indicted because he checks off all the boxes,” she said. “It’s a prime case for indictment.”
In this case, the prosecution was prompted by the federal judge who oversaw the civil lawsuit and who referred Mr. Levandowski’s behavior to the Justice Department for investigation.
“I have never seen a criminal referral from the bench in a trade secret case before. It certainly raised an eyebrow,” Ms. Rowe said. “Usually, judges don’t get involved at all.”
Eric Goldman, who co-directs the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, said the allegations in Mr. Levandowski’s case are so egregious that federal prosecutors wanted to take a swing.
“The trade secret case here doesn’t break new ground here. It just reinforces the risk that someone playing at the margins could face real life-changing consequences,” he said.
Mr. Handel predicted that more such cases will test the boundaries of what is acceptable conduct for tech employees, for whom switching companies is common.
“I think we see it as a cautionary note because we may not see fact patterns as egregious as this one allegedly is,” he said. “There will certainly be heightened due diligence in hiring people and where the line exists between employee mobility and enforceable nondisclosure agreements.”
Mr. Levandowski last year founded another self-driving startup company, Pronto.
That firm said Tuesday that its chief safety officer would take over as CEO.
“The criminal charges filed against Anthony relate exclusively to Lidar and do not in any way involve Pronto’s ground-breaking technology. Of course, we are fully supportive of Anthony and his family during this period,” Pronto said.