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Uber is about to fire back in the legal drama that’s gripped Silicon Valley

Biz Carson
Travis Kalanick

(Uber CEO Travis KalanickREUTERS/Adnan Abidi)
SAN FRANCISCO — On Friday morning, Uber will finally be laying out its response to claims that its star engineer downloaded files from his former employer and took them to the ride-hailing company to build a direct competitor.

Uber is expected to argue that the 14,000 files that were allegedly downloaded by Anthony Levandowski, the head of its self-driving car unit, never made it to Uber or into its self-driving technology. The company also plans to show that its Lidar unit, a laser-based sensor that's a key component of self-driving cars, is nothing like what the Google spin-out believes.

The case has become a high profile Silicon Valley legal drama, featuring everything from a rock star engineer who is pleading the fifth amendment, two of the world's most powerful tech companies, and a cantankerous judge who is already showing signs of impatience at the various actors.

"This is an extraordinary case," US District Judge William Alsup said during a hearing on Wednesday.

"I’ve never seen a record this strong in 42 years. And you are up against it," Alsup told Uber's attorneys. "And you are looking at a preliminary injunction even if it’s true. You just can’t escape this by saying we’ve been working hard and we can’t find any hits."

The missing files

Uber will have to clear a high bar when it files detailed response to the claims against it on Friday. The response comes more than a month after Waymo, the self-driving car spin-out from Google's parent company Alphabet, filed its lawsuit against the ride-hailing giant. At the time, Uber only remarked that this case was "a baseless attempt to slow down a competitor."

In February, Waymo sued Uber, claiming that Levandowski had stolen vital Lidar technology shortly before starting his own self-driving company (which Uber later acquired). Waymo has asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction to stop Uber from using any technology that may have been built on its proprietary information.

Waymo has already claimed that Uber is stonewalling the case by not adequately searching for the documents in its systems.

Of the more than 40 former Google employees that now work on Uber's self-driving car efforts, Uber randomly selected 7 employees in addition to the three mentioned in Waymo's complaint to investigate the files on their laptops and on servers. Uber said it searched more than 12 terabytes of data, the equivalent of 8.3 billion pages of text, and hasn't found any substantive hits. However, Alsup is requiring Uber to search additional terms and more employees as part of its discovery process.

"What you’re telling me is not going to be a get out of jail free card," Alsup said.

The twist

One other reason that the case is something unlike what Alsup has seen in his career is because of the maneuvers of the engineer at the heart of the matter, Levandowski. 

Anthony Levandowski

(Anthony LevandowskiOtto)
Despite not being named in the lawsuit, Levandowski's lawyers told the court on Thursday that Levandowski has invoked his fifth amendment rights to prevent the disclosure of documents that could potentially lead to self-incrimination. In particular, Levandowski wants the court to not compel Uber to disclose the name of the third party that did its due diligence report in its privilege log.

"You are hiding from me what the real facts are. You’re keeping me in the dark," Alsup said during Thursday's hearing.

Waymo argued in a filing on Wednesday that the argument shows that "Uber was aware, prior to acquiring Otto, that Mr. Levandowski took documents from Waymo."

Alsup hasn't issued an order on Levandowski's motion to scale back the privilege log and whether he buys his fifth amendment defense, but told Levandowski's lawyers to hand over an un-redacted copy of the privilege log with the suggested redactions and to also give a redacted copy to Waymo's attorneys.

While Alsup wrestles with Levandowski's fifth amendment claims, Uber is preparing to lay out the beginnings of its defense on Friday. Waymo doesn't want a man who is says took 14,000 over their files to run a competitor's self-driving car program. Now it's up to Uber to argue why the court shouldn't stop it.

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