Technology

How Uber May Have Tried to Spy on Its Self-Driving Rivals


Over the past few years, Uber has schemed to boost its self-driving efforts by spying on rivals, poaching staff, and acquiring their software, according to newly released court documents. Though competitor intelligence work is standard among large companies, the details are rarely made public.

In the long-running Waymo v. Uber lawsuit, Uber stands accused of stealing and using trade secrets from Alphabet’s self-driving car division to boost its own, younger program. New documents filed in federal court this week focus on the activities of Uber’s Strategic Services Group (SSG), an eight-person group within the company’s Threat Operation division, dedicated to collecting intelligence on competitors. A former ThreatOps employee has claimed that SSG frequently engaged in fraud and theft, and employed third-party vendors to obtain unauthorized data or information.

Uber denies these allegations, arguing that they were part of that employee’s attempt to extort money from the company amidst the Waymo lawsuit. But it made SSG staff available for deposition by Waymo in December. These depositions detail the group’s activities, including video surveillance of rivals’ cars, talking with suppliers, plans to acquire self-driving software by scraping websites, and a trip to Las Vegas for the CES trade show.

The group’s efforts included launching a project called Zoo to learn more about Uber’s self-driving rivals, each of which got its own code name. “SSG’s 2017 research will focus on Giraffe, Turtle, Zebra and Turtle/Chimp as well as competitors from Asia,” said a planning document SSG staff wrote in December 2016, which a lawyer for Waymo read into the court record.

Giraffe was Uber’s code-name for Google and Waymo, court records indicate. Turtle/Chimp could refer to General Motors and either Lyft (with which it wants to build a self-driving car network) or Cruise, the startup GM bought in 2016. Zebra—whose goal is quoted as being to “reinvent completely the automobile”—might be Zoox, a stealthy Silicon Valley startup that is building a robotic taxi from the ground up.

“Giraffe leads the other 30-plus companies in the race to field fully autonomous vehicles,” admitted the report. “For 2017, SSG’s priority effort will be Giraffe.” SSG was interested in which automakers Waymo was working with, what technology needs it was outsourcing, and who its suppliers were, the records reveal. SSG was also tasked with “[tracking] social media accounts, e.g., LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera, in order to map the personal and professional networks of key personnel” at Waymo.

The group’s prime target was the stuff that makes Waymo’s cars so smart: their secret source code. “Success in [the] autonomous vehicle race ultimately hinges on the source code,” read another SSG document. “All the source code necessary for success can be compressed to [around] 75 megabytes.” In comparison, an hour-long Netflix download is about 200 megabytes.

SSG started its search by examining GitHub, a website where software developers post all kinds of open source software. “We would [be] looking for context that would be… inadvertently dropped out of there by an engineer [but] we’ve never run across anything that I would consider protected data,” Matt Henley, Uber’s director of ThreatOps, said in a deposition.

The next plan, court records show, involved sending SSG staff to CES in January 2017—autonomous driving is a major topic at the enormous technology trade show in Las Vegas. Team members attended technical presentations to see if they could glean any information about other companies’ source code that would help Uber’s Advanced Technology Group build its own robocars. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work either, probably because most companies avoid revealing key technical data in public lectures.

“So in terms of the number one priorities for collection and organizations, it’s your testimony that Uber obtained no information at CES 2017?… It was a failure?” a Waymo lawyer asked SSG member Edward Russo during his deposition. “You could characterize it that way,” Russo replied.

SSG did not leave Las Vegas completely empty handed, the depositions indicate. A South Korean company called Jungsang told one member of the SSG team that it was working with Waymo on laser-ranging lidar systems.

On February 14, 2017, SSG brought this intel into a meeting with Anthony Levandowski and Lior Ron, ex-Google engineers and co-founders of the self-driving truck startup Otto that Uber had bought the previous summer. Levandowski had been made head of Uber’s self-driving program. He thought the information was “garbage and not of interest,” SSG team member Nick Gicinto said in his deposition.

Instead of waiting for information to drop into Uber’s lap, Levandowski and Ron suggested that the intelligence group take a more proactive approach, according to the new material filed in court. Ron noted that supply chain members are “good sources of insight into a competitor’s plans, intentions and capabilities.” A report from the February meeting said, “To succeed, our [intelligence] collection plan must be both broad and deep. It must be broad enough to develop streams of reporting on at least six different competitors… [and] deep enough to acquire in a timely manner meaningful technical data.”

The depositions describe a new priority list for SSG, along with external vendors, to develop new sources of information, debrief engineers who had left their programs to work at Uber, and “map the human terrain around each of the key personalities” at Waymo.

Shortly after the February meeting, Waymo filed its lawsuit against Uber, accusing Levandowski of taking 9,700 megabytes of confidential technical self-driving car data with him when he left Google, using it to start Otto, and then bringing it to Uber.

In April, said Gicinto, Russo and another SSG team-member, Jake Nocon, flew to Phoenix to carry out surveillance of Waymo’s experimental self-driving vehicles. For about four days, they followed and videotaped the cars driving on public streets. Henley must have joined them, as he testified to a conversation in a car with Nocon, where Nocon asked him if there was anything to the Waymo lawsuit. “I answered something along the lines, I think they’re just trying to screw with us,” said Henley. “There may be something with Anthony [Levandowski]. And I said, I hope this audio doesn’t leave the car.” But Nocon had accidentally left the audio recording on, and Waymo found it during legal discovery for the trial.

The lawsuit, of course, caused more than idle speculation among Uber staffers. Levandowski and Ron’s plans to approach suppliers and conduct daily background research on competitors were never carried out, according to multiple SSG depositions. Nick Gicinto testified that he was not aware of Uber ever hiring external vendors to dig up information on Waymo.

Uber ultimately fired Levandowski in May 2017 for not cooperating with its investigation into the lawsuit. Gicinto said in his deposition that the new head of the autonomous driving program, Eric Meyhofer, quickly asked Ron to cease all surveillance of Uber’s competitors. SSG had also filmed other vehicles, including those run by an unnamed company in San Francisco, as late as May.

Waymo argues that Uber’s particular interest in the performance of its self-driving cars last year proves Uber’s ill intent. A lawyer for Uber says that “gathering public information on competitors is a common (and legal) business practice,” and that Waymo is making “unwarranted inferences based on irrelevant innuendo.”

The trial is due to begin on February 5, at which point, the jury gets to make its own judgment.


Waymo v. Uber



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