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Earrings Made of Top-Secret Electronics Are Actually Part of the Uber-Waymo Lawsuit

September 11, 2017

This court case is starting to sound like a satire on corporate espionage. If you were working on a top-secret hardware project, would you give away a prototype of the device, fashioned into a pair of earrings, to a departing colleague? Probably not! But bizarrely, that's exactly what employees at Waymo seem to have done with experimental versions of the hardware that is now at the center of its heated lawsuit with Uber.

IEEE Spectrum reports that when Waymo exec Seval Oz left the firm for Continental, she was given a set of earrings made from circuit boards. But they weren’t any old circuit boards: the jewelry was made from parts of the second version of a proprietary lidar sensor developed by Waymo. The third version of that sensor is the one at the center of an explosive lawsuit, in which Waymo accuses Uber of stealing its trade secrets. Discussing the gift in court, Waymo’s Pierre-Yves Droz said that the electronics, even in earring form, were "not something we should give to someone, especially if someone is leaving the company."

Their existence certainly caught the attention of Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s star self-driving-car engineer, who used to work at Waymo and now stands accused of taking secrets to Uber. Levandowski tracked down Oz via text message, at one point writing: "I could meet you in Fremont or do dinner your call. Just want to make sure I don’t forget to grab the ear rings." He ultimately did get hold of them. (Levandowski has text message history with former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, too.)

Which way the revelation swings is hard to tell. It certainly shows that Levandowski was eager to have his hands on Waymo secrets. But it could also be argued that it shows that Waymo didn’t treat the security of its intellectual property particularly seriously. The courts will decide.

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