Uber’s Shady Competitive Intelligence Unit Revealed in Court

In an interesting turn of events, the ongoing case of Waymo v. Uber, which was scheduled to go to trial next week, has come to a screeching halt amid allegations of Uber having withheld material information surrounding the existence of a unit within the company set up specifically to steal the intellectual property of others.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, overseeing the trial, rebuked Uber, ordering the company to release to the court “all documents in the entire company that have anything to do with ephemeral [Wickr rooms for collaboration], anything to do with non-attributable devices, and anything to do with false attorney/client privilege,” according to ARS Technica.

This sounds familiar, as in October we discussed the previously unreleased due diligence report which set Uber’s defense afire. It appears the company has evermore gas to pour on its self-inflicted fire.

Former Uber Employee Spills the Beans

Court documents reveal the existence of a letter from the lawyer of Richard Jacobs, a former Uber employee, accompanied by Jacobs’ own testimony on Nov. 27, which provided sufficient evidence to the court that the company had a systematic methodology in place to gather competitor’s technologies. Furthermore, according to the New York Times, Uber went to “considerable lengths to cover its tracks.”

Jacobs’ letter came to light when the U.S. Attorney for Northern California alerted the court to the existence of the letter, written to Angela Padilla, the deputy general counsel at Uber.

How would Jacobs know? The Times reports that Jacobs was hired in March 2016 as Uber’s manager of global intelligence and fired in April, taking with him a $4.5 million settlement. He remains a paid security consultant to the company.

Alsup is reported to have said to Uber’s lawyers, “I can no longer trust the words of the lawyers for Uber in this case. Even if half of what is in that letter is true, it would be an injustice for Waymo to go to trial.”

How Did the Competitive Intelligence Unit Operate?

According to Jacobs, Uber took deliberate efforts to “prevent sensitive info from legal discovery.” Their team was taught the use of attorney-client privilege and how to use encrypted communications including Wickr, a secure ephemeral application for secure messaging and collaboration that is encrypted and has the ability to self-destruct the content. In addition, says Jacobs, phone and video calls were to be used to share information, not unsecured written communications.

Jacobs described how his team would scour GitHub to identify competitor’s information or codes and to identify personnel within competitor’s companies who would be attractive targets for an approach to hire and purloin the intellectual property of the competitor. Furthermore, according to the AP, Jacobs testified that Uber hired several contractors, including those who “employed former CIA agents (sic) to help Uber infiltrate rival’s computers.”

Still More to Learn

With the trial delayed, and Judge Alsup’s request for Uber to have its attorneys testify, we now await his revelation of the unredacted Jacobs letter, which will allow a clearer picture into the company’s courtroom antics and their unscrupulous competitive intelligence unit.

Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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