Uber spies stole rivals' data: Ex-employee

A letter written by a former Uber security employee says the company formed separate internal teams "expressly for the purpose of acquiring trade secrets" from major ride-sharing competitors around the world.
A letter written by a former Uber security employee says the company formed separate internal teams "expressly for the purpose of acquiring trade secrets" from major ride-sharing competitors around the world.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Global intelligence-gathering activities made public in US court

SAN FRANCISCO • For years, Uber spied on key executives, drivers and employees at rival ride-hailing companies as part of a larger intelligence-gathering operation that spanned multiple countries, according to a letter made public in a federal court on Friday.

The letter, written by former Uber security employee Richard Jacobs, detailed the formation of separate internal teams "expressly for the purpose of acquiring trade secrets" from major ride-sharing competitors around the world.

Those teams worked to infiltrate chat rooms and scraped websites for data on competitors. Uber security staff occasionally impersonated drivers to gain access to chat groups, illegally recorded phone calls and secretly wiretapped and tailed executives at rival companies last year, the letter said.

"Uber has engaged, and continues to engage, in illegal intelligence gathering on a global scale," Mr Jacobs wrote in the 37-page letter.

His letter underscores the lengths that Uber went to to get ahead of rivals under its former chief executive, Mr Travis Kalanick, when it prized aggressiveness and the growth of its ride-hailing business above all else.

The company is now trying to shift away from that image and stabilise after a year filled with scandals, executive departures and internal battles.

Those teams worked to infiltrate chat rooms and scraped websites for data on competitors. Uber security staff also occasionally impersonated drivers to gain access to chat groups, illegally recorded phone calls, and secretly wiretapped and tailed executives at rival companies last year, the letter said.

Mr Kalanick stepped down in June, and his successor, Mr Dara Khosrowshahi, has been on an apology tour for Uber's past behaviour.

Mr Jacobs' letter is part of a trade secrets case that Uber is fighting against Waymo, the self-driving-automobile business that operates under Google's parent company.

Waymo has said Uber stole information about driverless-car technology from it. Uber denies the allegations, and the case is scheduled to go to trial next month.

But in his court testimony, Mr Jacobs walked back some of its claims, including those pertaining to Uber's alleged theft of Waymo's trade secrets. Uber had privately settled a lawsuit by Mr Jacobs for millions of dollars this year.

Still, the letter paints a picture of Uber's other competitive tactics, which Mr Jacobs said were carried out with Mr Kalanick's knowledge.

"While we haven't substantiated all the claims in this letter - and, importantly, any related to Waymo - our new leadership has made clear that going forward we will compete honestly and fairly, on the strength of our ideas and technology," said Uber spokesman Matt Kallman in a statement after the letter's release.

Uber is facing at least five federal investigations, including at least one over a software tool called "Greyball", which the company created to evade law enforcement in cities worldwide. It is also facing a probe into whether it broke the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for bribery overseas, a claim Mr Jacobs made in his letter.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Uber spies stole rivals' data: Ex-employee'. Print Edition | Subscribe