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Former Uber Employees Cleared of Illegal Spying

The New York Times tells the remarkable story of Uber’s need for more intelligence gathering back in 2016:

Uber was expanding aggressively into foreign markets. The pushback was swift and sometimes violent. Taxi drivers staged widespread protests, and in Nairobi, Kenya, several Uber cars were lit on fire and drivers were beaten. Competitors in China and India used sophisticated methods to collect Uber’s data and undercut its prices. To fight back, Uber began to recruit a team of former C.I.A. officers like [Nick] Gicinto, law enforcement officials and cybersecurity experts. The team would gather intelligence about threats against Uber drivers and executives, and investigate competing companies and potential acquisitions. “They didn’t know what was going on, on the ground,” Mr. Gicinto said. “They recognized that they needed somebody who understood the human aspect of these things and understood foreign environments….”

In addition to Uber’s recruitment from the C.I.A., Google, Facebook and Amazon poached hackers from the National Security Agency to fend off cyberattacks, former Federal Bureau of Investigation agents to staff teams responsible for fielding law enforcement requests and former Pentagon officials to advise on defense contracts.
A history professor at the University of Washington in Seattle tells the Times it’s not at all unusual for tech companies to hire from the intelligence community, a long-standing practice to protect intellectual secrets.

So for example, Uber’s team “outsourced some of the projects to intelligence firms, which sent contractors to infiltrate driver protests… the team filmed Waymo’s vehicles and scraped competitors’ apps to collect pricing information.”

The men who gathered intelligence for Uber were supposed to be ghosts. For years, they were un-Googleable sentries, quietly informing executives about the actions of competitors, opponents and disgruntled employees. But the secrecy of the tightknit team ended abruptly in 2017 when one of its members turned on the others, accusing them of stealing trade secrets, wiretapping and destroying evidence. They flouted the law while carrying out Uber’s dirtiest missions, their former co-worker, Richard Jacobs, claimed in an April 2017 email sent to top Uber executives. His lawyer followed up with a letter that said the team went so far as to hack foreign governments and wiretap Uber’s own employees.

But Mr. Jacobs’s most damning allegations of illegal activity were not true. In June, nearly four years after his claims drew wide attention, he retracted them. In a letter to his former co-workers that he wrote as part of a legal settlement, Mr. Jacobs explained that he had never intended to suggest that they broke the law. “I am sorry,” he wrote. “I regret not having clarified the statements at an earlier time and regret any distress or injury my statements may have caused.” Gary Bostwick, a lawyer for Mr. Jacobs, declined to comment….

Testifying in court, Mr. Jacobs seemed to distance himself from some of the claims in the letter. He hadn’t had much time to review it before his lawyer sent it, he said, and he wasn’t sure if Mr. Gicinto and his other former co-workers had broken the law. “I did not believe it was patently illegal. I had questions about the ethics of it,” Mr. Jacobs testified. “It felt overly aggressive and invasive and inappropriate.”
The Times reports that Uber had paid $7.5 million to cooperate with an investigation into Jacobs’ allegations (according to legal filings), and while the findings were never made public, the co-workers accused in the letter “said they had been told that they were cleared of any wrongdoing…

“In 2021, Mr. Jacobs settled the libel lawsuit by his former co-workers. The terms of the settlement are not public.”

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