Uber’s Use of Wickr Raises Questions About Ephemeral Messaging Apps

During a pair of explosive pre-trial hearings last week, the lawsuit between self-driving Alphabet spinoff Waymo and Uber over trade secrets got an unlikely, new star player. It wasn’t an engineer, like Anthony Levadowski, the former Google engineer who allegedly brought reams of Waymo trade secrets to his next big gig as head of autonomous driving at Uber. It wasn’t a security analyst, like Ric Jacobs, a former Uber employee whose allegations of malfeasance within the company delayed the Uber-Waymo trial by two months as the judge reopened the document discovery process.

It was a messaging app. Anybody can download Wickr to send encrypted messages that destroy themselves, but its professional, workplace product takes the extra step of giving the employers the power to determine how long the messages stick around before it deletes them. It’s [like Slack, but for the Impossible Missions Force. According to pre-trial testimony, intelligence gathering teams at Uber used Wickr and another app called Telegram to discuss sensitive information. Levandowski and Lior Ron, another former Google self-driving engineer who ended up at Uber, also used it to communicate, according to testimony from Uber employees.

Waymo’s theory is that Levandowski, Ron, and other Uber employees used Wickr and other “ephemeral” messaging apps, which delete conversations, to discuss the trade secrets they had stolen from Waymo. This “may explain why the 14,000 files stolen from Waymo by Anthony Levandowski have not yet been discovered on the Uber infrastructure,” Waymo’s legal team wrote in a brief filed this week, trying to explain why it hasn’t found decisive evidence that Uber used Waymo intellectual property to advance its self-driving efforts.

Whatever the truth (the trail is now slated to start February 5), Wickr’s sudden starring role in this high-profile case raises questions about how companies at risk of litigation should be using such systems, if at all.

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