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Business
17 Dec 2017

Uber stole rivals' secrets and used undercover agents, says letter

It seems that Uber's legal battle with Alphabet-owned self-driving company Waymo has reached a critical point.

A recent letter published by a US Court revealed that Uber had set up a covert unit tasked with stealing rivals' secrets and engaging in undercover surveillance.

The letter, which was sent to Uber in May by lawyers representing an ex-Uber employee, wasn't publicly available until now.

In context

Waymo-vs-Uber: Uber accused of data theft, undercover surveillance
Details about the infamous Jacobs letter

Jacobs letter

Details about the infamous Jacobs letter

The allegations were made by Richard Jacobs who worked as security manager for Uber until earlier this year.

Jacobs' departure from Uber was a bitter one, wherein he felt he was unfairly demoted. He sent the letter shortly afterwards.

After settling with Uber for $4.5 million, Jacobs admitted that some allegations pertaining to Waymo's trade secrets were untrue.

Other allegations, however, have been confirmed.

Allegations: SSG

How Uber's secretive Strategic Services Group engaged in unlawful activities

The letter alleges that Uber set up a secretive Strategic Services Group (SSG) which "frequently engaged in fraud and theft, and employed third-party vendors to obtain unauthorized data or information".

Jacobs also accused Uber's security officers of "hacking" rivals, and said that they engaged in "destruction of evidence related to eavesdropping against opposition groups".

Moreover, Jacobs alleged that ex-CEO Travis Kalanick was well aware.

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The SSG unlawfully surveilled rivals, politicians, regulators, law enforcement

Allegations: Surveillance

The SSG unlawfully surveilled rivals, politicians, regulators, law enforcement

The Jacobs letter also alleged that Uber employee Nicholas Gicinto, along with the SSG, conducted "virtual operations impersonating protesters, Uber partner-drivers, and taxi operators", and went to great lengths to hide their unlawful surveillance activities from authorities.

Using unattributable hardware and software, the SSG surveilled "politicians, regulators, law enforcement, taxi organizations, and labor unions in, at a minimum, the US".

An instance of surveillance by Uber

In 2014, an Uber executive obtained the medical records of a 26-year-old woman from Delhi who was raped by an Uber driver in India. Uber speculated that her allegation of rape was to hurt its business. She sued Uber, and agreed to an out-of-court settlement.

Allegations: Theft

Jacobs' allegations on Uber's data thieving practices confirmed by Gizmodo

Jacobs also alleged that Uber's innocuously named Market Analytics unit was responsible for "acquiring trade secrets, codebase, and competitive intelligence... from major ridesharing competitors globally" through impersonation, hacking, and wiretapping.

Jacobs' allegations are also supported by a report by Gizmodo which says that Uber had been using both automated collection systems and physical surveillance to scrape data off competitors for years.

Reactions: Uber

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi's comments on the Jacobs letter

Reacting to the Jacobs letter, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi distanced himself from the practices alleged which took place before he took the reins from Kalanick.

He also said that many of the alleged malpractices had occurred, and would not be tolerated anymore.

He said that the allegations were "more than enough to merit serious concern", and Uber would move ahead "honestly and fairly".

Reactions: Judge

US Judge overseeing Waymo-vs-Uber says Uber's lawyers are untrustworthy

US District Court Judge William Alsup, the judge overseeing the Waymo-vs-Uber case, was forced to delay the jury trial for the second time.

Alsup, who was made aware of the letter by the US Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California, said that he could "no longer trust the words" of Uber's lawyers.

The trial is expected to begin in February.

How does the Jacobs letter affect the Waymo-vs-Uber case?

Waymo-vs-Uber

How does the Jacobs letter affect the Waymo-vs-Uber case?

With Jacobs claiming that allegations pertaining to trade secret thefts from Waymo were untrue, it remains to be seen how Waymo's legal team uses the contents of the Jacobs letter to convince the jury of its broader case against Uber.

Waymo's suit against Uber involves the theft of thousands of documents by ex-Waymo employee Anthony Levandowski who shifted to working for Uber.

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