On Tuesday, the widely proclaimed savant of self-driving vehicles, Anthony Levandowski was slapped with thirty-three charges of criminal thievery for taking Google’s alleged “trade secrets” with him when he left the company and moved to Uber. However, it raises some serious concerns for the future of innovation within Silicon Valley. Levandowski was charged because he took information about how Google developed its self-driving system to a competitor. For smaller companies looking to headhunt talent from the larger companies, this could be a severe problem for them shortly.
The History of Innovation is Theft
The four significant tech companies that exist today all benefitted at some point from a competitor’s employee leaving that company behind to join them. After gaining from these movements in the past, suddenly, tech giants like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft are concerned when their own talent decides to work for up-and-coming competitors. The Levandowski charges are an example of how Big Tech is okay when they steal the trade secrets of others but become very itinerant when the same is done to them.
Levandowski’s story began when he left Google with fourteen thousand files downloaded from his work machine, taking them to Uber. In 2017, Google sued Uber but decided after the first four days of the case that the suit wasn’t worth their time, settling out of court for a small amount of Uber stock valued at $250 million. Fast-forward to Tuesday, and the US Attorney’s office revealed that Levandowski was indicted for thirty-three counts of theft and attempted theft of trade secrets. However, the definition of a trade secret is broad, and because of that, engineers in some tech firms in Silicon Valley become locked into working at a single employer for fear of being targeted along the same lines as Levandowski.
While a lot of commentators are happy at the result, it should raise some red flags about the information engineers may handle throughout their work. There is no guarantee that an engineer won’t face charges for merely having a work-related document on their home computer from a former employer.