In February, Waymo, part of Google’s parent company, sued Uber for theft of confidential information. Allegedly, a former employee of Waymo, who had been a key part of Google’s driverless car initiative, took 14,000 files and then shortly jumped ship to start up his own autonomous vehicle company. A short time later, Uber acquired the start-up for $680 million.
The dispute concerns lidar technology, a laser rader sensor system which is crucial in enabling autonomous vehicles to understand their surroundings. Waymo claim they were tipped off to the theft of their information when they were inadvertedly copied into an email by one of their suppliers in relation to an Uber lidar circuit board.
So far Waymo has scored wins in court in preventing the case going to arbitration and in securing an injunction to prevent the employee in question working on the lidar technology. However, Uber won the right to keep their driverless car programme alive….for now.
The outcome of this case is significant because it will affect competition in the autonomous vehicle market at a crucial stage of its development. It also highlights the inherent issues in the tech sector for employers – it’s common for individuals to move around different companies. There is a tension between encouraging innovation, hiring the best people and protecting the organisations trade secrets.
This is not the first trade secrets litigation that has started after the wrong person was cc’d on an email. Organisations should ensure that staff are reminded about email security (including accidental disclosures) on a regular basis. Particularly in view of the Trade Secrets directive, confidential material should be properly labelled. Organisations can also implement computer monitoring policies or security systems that flag when significant downloads of material are made.