Rebuking Uber Lawyers, Judge Delays Trade Secrets Trial

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge on Tuesday delayed a highly anticipated trade secrets trial between Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car unit, and Uber, a day before jury selection was set to begin.

Judge William Alsup of Federal District Court in San Francisco said a letter written by a lawyer for Richard Jacobs, a former Uber employee, which surfaced last week, contradicted earlier statements by Uber’s lawyers, forcing him to delay the trial until Waymo’s lawyers could gather more information.

The letter, along with Mr. Jacobs’s testimony on Tuesday, provides a window into a secretive operation inside Uber that gathered information on competitors while going to considerable lengths to cover its tracks.

“I can no longer trust the words of the lawyers for Uber in this case,” Judge Alsup said. He added, “If even half of what is in that letter is true, it would be an injustice for Waymo to go to trial.”

The United States attorney’s office in Northern California alerted the court to the letter, written by Mr. Jacobs’s lawyer to Angela Padilla, deputy general counsel at Uber. Uber hired Mr. Jacobs in March 2016 as its manager of global intelligence and fired him in April of this year, Mr. Jacobs testified in court on Tuesday. He is now a paid security consultant for Uber.

In discussions with other Uber employees, Mr. Jacobs testified, he learned of an internal organization that gathered trade secrets, code and other information about its competitors. It was called the “marketplace analytics team,” according to the letter. The group frequented the code-sharing site GitHub, searching for private material that may have been accidentally revealed by competitors.

This Uber team also led efforts “to evade, impede, obstruct, influence several ongoing lawsuits against Uber,” according to the letter from Mr. Jacobs’s lawyer. The team also tried to find out what other companies were doing. In 2016, Uber hired someone to help recruit insiders within competitors to steal trade secrets, according to the letter.

This group relied on “anonymous” servers separate from the rest of the Uber network, and some employees were expected to rely on devices that encrypted or automatically deleted messages after a certain amount of time, Mr. Jacobs testified. Email was a last resort.

This system, Mr. Jacobs said in his testimony, “was to ensure there was no paper trail that would come back to haunt the company in any criminal or civil litigation.”

Mr. Jacobs said Tuesday that this effort was focused solely on overseas competitors and that he was not aware of the unit obtaining trade secrets from Waymo or other competitors in the United States. That contradicted an assertion in his letter, which said he was aware that this team had at least stolen trade secrets from Waymo.

Waymo sued Uber in February, claiming that a former engineer for Waymo, Anthony Levandowski, conspired with Uber to steal Waymo trade secrets. Waymo said Mr. Levandowski downloaded more than 14,000 confidential files from company servers before leaving the Google unit and eventually joining the autonomous vehicle project at Uber.

In earlier years, Google Ventures, the venture capital arm of Waymo and Google’s parent company, Alphabet, invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Uber, and David Drummond, a top Alphabet executive, sat on Uber’s board.

But as Uber challenged Waymo in the race to autonomous vehicles, Mr. Drummond left the Uber board, and the rivalry between the two companies came to exemplify the intense competition in a race that promises to reshape both the tech and automobile industries.

Uber has denied the claims in Waymo’s suit. In May, Uber fired Mr. Levandowski after he failed to turn over evidence and testimony related to the suit, citing his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

On Monday, after Uber supplied the court with a redacted copy of the letter from Mr. Jacobs, Waymo asked that the trial be delayed so that it could review this new evidence and conduct new interviews with witnesses.