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Uber could be facing 2 federal criminal investigations

TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2014 - Day 1
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

A federal judge in California has asked the US Department of Justice to investigate whether Uber should face criminal prosecution for the alleged theft of self-driving car secrets from Google’s Waymo spinoff. It’s the latest escalation in a bitter legal conflict between the two companies.

The dispute centers on the actions of Anthony Levandowski. He’s an early member of Google’s self-driving car team who left Waymo in early 2016 to start a company that was quickly snapped up by Uber. Waymo says Levandowski stole a large amount of sensitive technical information from Waymo on his way out the door and incorporated Waymo’s designs into Uber’s own self-driving technology. Waymo sued Uber in February.

Now Judge William Alsup, the California judge overseeing the case, has asked federal prosecutors to look into Waymo’s allegations. He took no position on whether prosecution was warranted, but evidently believes there’s enough evidence to justify having the feds take a look.

Alsup’s referral comes just a week after news broke that Uber is facing a federal investigation over a totally different controversy: Uber’s use of software called “Greyball” to mislead local regulators who were trying to enforce taxi laws as Uber was entering new markets. Uber now says it has discontinued the use of the software.

Neither of these investigations will necessarily lead to criminal charges actually being filed. Prosecutors might conclude that Uber did nothing wrong or that there wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction. Still, the embattled ride-sharing company, which has faced multiple scandals this year and is still far from profitability, doesn’t need any more problems.

Disclosure: My brother works at Google.