Uber has been in the press a lot recently and all for the wrong reasons. Sexual harassment, ‘Grey Balling’ rides, fake apps to confuse regulators, the list seems to be endless, but its main undoing could be silently brewing away in a courtroom in San Francisco.
On the 13th December, 2016, a Waymo employee was copied on an email from one of their vendors, in error. On closer inspection, the email had the subject ‘Otto Files’ and contained detailed schematics of the self driving technology (LidDAR or ‘Laser Based Surveying’) and circuit board design of Waymo’s main competitor in the self driving car space, called Otto. Otto was also a client of the vendor that sent the misaddressed email.
The details contained within these email attachments (including machine drawings of an Otto circuit board), bore a striking resemblance to that used by Waymo. This instigated an investigation and lawsuit filed by Waymo, which is owned by Google (Alphabet) against the parent company of the recently acquired Otto, Uber Technologies.
The plot thickens when the backstory is overlaid. The man at the centre of the storm is Anthony Levandowski, a former senior Waymo engineer, who resigned 11 months earlier to set up his own autonomous vehicle startup (which was sold to Uber for $680 million, 6 months after its inception). His startup is called… you guessed it, Otto!
A statement by Waymo was posted on Medium and alleges that:
“… six weeks before his resignation this former employee, Anthony Levandowski, downloaded over 14,000 highly confidential and proprietary design files for Waymo’s various hardware systems, including designs of Waymo’s LiDAR and circuit board. To gain access to Waymo’s design server, Mr. Levandowski searched for and installed specialized software onto his company-issued laptop. Once inside, he downloaded 9.7 GB of Waymo’s highly confidential files and trade secrets, including blueprints, design files and testing documentation. Then he connected an external drive to the laptop. Mr. Levandowski then wiped and reformatted the laptop in an attempt to erase forensic fingerprints”
If the allegations turn out to be true and proved in court, it can have devastating consequences for Uber. Not only could the financial cost of litigation be crippling, but there could be an immense amount of reputational damage which could have far reaching impact and implications for everyone from Uber’s current and future investors, to its customers. Furthermore, Google could file for an injunction and prevent Uber from any further development of its self driving technology, at least until the matter is resolved in court (which could take years), thus slowing down its competitive position in a multibillion pound, rapidly growing market.
Copying an incorrect recipient into an email is one of the most common forms of misaddressed emails. CheckRecipient’s Guardian platform analyses millions of data points across the entire email network of an organisation and from this unstructured information, categorises and maps key data relationships. Guardian applies data science and machine learning algorithms to detect patterns of behaviour and anomalies across the network. In the case of the misaddressed email sent to Waymo, Guardian would have detected that the intended recipient was in fact not copied in with the other recipients as a matter of normal behaviour. Guardian would have detected that the subject matter and attachments were not usually associated with the normal pattern of communication between the vendor and the Waymo employee. Critically, had CheckRecipient been installed, the software would have picked up the anomaly and flagged it as a warning in real time, before it had been sent.