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Former Google self-driving engineer pleads guilty to trade secrets theft

“I downloaded this file with the intent to use it for the benefit of someone other than Google,” Anthony Levandowski said in a court document.
Image: Anthony Levandowski
Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, pictured outside federal court in San Francisco on Sept. 24, 2019, has pleaded guilty to one count of trade secrets theft. Michael Liedtke / AP file

A former engineer in Google's self-driving division who became the focus of a criminal investigation that rocked Silicon Valley has pleaded guilty to a count of trade secrets theft.

Anthony Levandowski admitted he downloaded thousands of proprietary files from an internal Google server in 2015 and transferred them to his personal laptop, according to filings submitted Thursday in federal court in San Francisco.

Among the numerous files Levandowski downloaded was one called "Chauffeur TL weekly updates – Q4 2015," an internal document that included numerous details about Google's self-driving program, the Justice Department said in the court documents.

"I downloaded this file with the intent to use it for the benefit of someone other than Google," Levandowski wrote in the filing. "The Chauffeur Weekly Update contained a variety of details regarding the status of Google's self-driving car program."

In 2016, after leaving Google, Levandowski, then an ambitious young engineer, quickly created a self-driving tech startup called Otto, which was soon acquired by Uber.

The theft allegation sparked the action that Google's self-driving division, now known as Waymo, brought against Uber.

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In 2017, during hearings in the run-up to the civil trial, Levandowski fought hard to keep silent. He repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment, protecting himself against self-incrimination, and was threatened with being fired if he did not comply with court orders. Ultimately, Uber fired him.

This case was eventually settled for $245 million, but Levandowski was indicted last year on 33 counts of trade secrets theft or attempted trade secrets theft. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison but will likely serve considerably less.