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Former Google engineer pleads guilty to stealing secret files and sharing them with competitors

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Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, right, in front of his attorney, Miles Ehrlich,  outside of a federal courthouse in San Francisco, USA, Sept. 24, 2019.
Former Google engineer Anthony Levandowski, right, in front of his attorney, Miles Ehrlich, outside of a federal courthouse in San Francisco, USA, Sept. 24, 2019.   -   Copyright  AP/Michael Liedtke
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A former engineer pleaded guilty for stealing manufacturing secrets from Google’s autonomous cars and sharing them with competitors bought by Uber, according to his statement signed Thursday in San Francisco and obtained by AFP.

Anthony Levandowski, 39, worked at Google where he was one of the founding members of the project called "Chauffeur" in 2009.

This project develops autonomous cars for one of the internet giant's most ambitious companies.

He admitted on Thursday having downloaded a whole series of documents a few months before his resignation in January 2016.

"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."

One of the stolen documents included plans for the LiDAR system (for Light Detection And Ranging) which is a kind of radar where a laser replaces electromagnetic waves.

This essential technology in autonomous cars is used to measure distances and helps detecting obstacles.

Levandowski was the leader of the unit responsible for developing this in-house LiDAR.

On August 2019, he was charged with 33 counts of trade secrets theft or attempted trade secrets theft, and faces up to 10 years in prison with a $250,000 fine (€232,200).

He only pleaded guilty to one of them on Thursday, in exchange for abandoning the others. The stolen documents were valued at between €510,860 and €1.4 million.

"We all have the right to leave our job but none of us has the right to fill our pockets when leaving. Theft is not innovation," said David Anderson, the federal prosecutor in August 2019.

According to the indictment, the engineer was in contact with two competing companies from Google also working on autonomous cars, when he took hold of the sensitive files.

The two companies, Tyto Lidar and 280 Systems, became Ottomotto, which was then acquired by Uber in 2016. That is when Levandowski joined Uber.

At the end of 2016, Google’s autonomous car was renamed Waymo.

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