Federal prosecutors are investigating allegations that Uber deployed an espionage team to plunder trade secrets from its rivals. That has triggered a delay in a high-profile trial over whether the beleaguered ride-hailing company stole self-driving car technology from Google spinoff Waymo.
The criminal investigation being conducted by the U.S. Justice Department centers on information contained in a 37-page letter describing allegations made by Richard Jacobs, Uber’s former manager of global intelligence. Jacobs had the letter sent in May to an Uber lawyer. The letter contended Jacobs was wrongfully demoted and then fired for trying to stop misconduct by the company.
The investigation wasn’t publicly known until Tuesday, when it surfaced in a court hearing that was supposed to set the stage for a trial pitting Uber against Waymo, a self-driving car pioneer that started within Google eight years ago and is still a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company.
The hearing instead quickly turned into a forum raising more questions about the ethics and conduct of Uber. Over the last year, the San Francisco firm has been rocked by revelations of rampant sexual harassment inside the company, technological trickery designed to thwart regulators and a yearlong cover-up of a hacking attack that stole the personal information of 57 million passengers and 600,000 drivers.
Jacobs, whose lawyer wrote the letter at the center of the courtroom drama, testified Tuesday that Uber had set up a secret unit to steal trade secrets from its rivals overseas.
He didn’t specify which competitors he believed Uber had been targeting, but said some of the stolen information involved drivers.
His allegations had been kept under seal since the Justice Department passed them along to U.S. District Judge William Alsup last week.
To protect itself against potential trouble, Uber frequently communicated on a service called Wickr that automatically erases messages, according to Jacobs. He also testified that the company relied on a surreptitious computer system to eliminate all digital trails, and that it dispatched its security team to train self-driving car engineers in Pittsburgh on how to conceal their electronic tracks.
Uber’s espionage team also hired contractors who employed former CIA agents to help with its surveillance, Jacobs said.
Jacobs was Uber’s manager of global intelligence from March 2016 until he was fired seven months ago.