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Uber is being investigated for criminal behavior, Justice Department confirms

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Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

The US Department of Justice confirmed that it is investigating Uber, according to a letter submitted to a judge overseeing Alphabet’s lawsuit against the ride-hail firm. It is the first official confirmation that federal prosecutors are probing Uber’s alleged theft of Alphabet’s trade secrets.

The letter, addressed to federal judge William Alsup, was from the office of Acting US Attorney Alex Tse from the Northern District of California. Tse confirms that prosecutors, in the course of a “pending criminal investigation,” interviewed ex-Uber security analyst Richard Jacobs, whose letter to Uber’s legal team concerning illegal behavior by Uber employees was recently made public. In the interview, Jacobs told investigators everything he laid out in the bombshell memo:

Mr. Jacobs informed the government that shortly after the Uber/Otto acquisition, Ed Russo (an Uber employee in the Strategic Services Group (“SSG”)) gave a presentation in which he described a hypothetical scenario in which Uber’s SSG could arrange to have two CEOs meet covertly for a long period of time prior to an acquisition of one company by another. Mr. Jacobs and other Uber employees believed that this “hypothetical” scenario was in fact a recounting of efforts taken by SSG to protect meetings between Travis Kalanick and Anthony Levandowski.

Mr. Jacobs further stated that Uber employees routinely used non-attributable electronic devices to store and transmit information that they wished to separate from Uber’s official systems. He surmised that any wrongfully-obtained intellectual property could be stored on such devices, and that such action would prevent the intellectual property from being discovered in a review of Uber’s systems.

Alphabet’s suit centers around the alleged theft of thousands of documents by former Google self-driving engineer Anthony Levandowski. Shortly after Levandowski left Google, he founded Otto, a self-driving truck startup. Otto was eventually acquired by Uber. Waymo’s lawyers have argued that Uber wound up with those allegedly stolen files and merely masqueraded the process as an acquisition.

“While we haven’t substantiated all the claims in Mr. Jacobs’ 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,” an Uber spokesperson said in a statement.

We’ve known for several months now that Judge Alsup referred the case to the DOJ. Moreover, there are currently five criminal investigations into Uber’s business practices. Federal investigators are also looking into a software tool used to hide its vehicles from law enforcement officials called Greyball. There is a criminal bribery probe, which includes questions of how an ex-Uber official obtained medical records of a woman raped by an Uber driver in India. (Uber recently settled a lawsuit from the female victim.) There are also inquiries into whether Uber violated anti-pricing discrimination laws, as well as the company’s use of software (codenamed “Hell”) to track Lyft drivers.