Robocar tech biz sues Nvidia, claims stolen code shared in Teams meeting blunder

Two companies both online when slide was viewed at presentation

Nvidia is facing legal action in the US for theft of trade secrets from a German automotive company, which alleges its ex-employee made an epic blunder of showing something he shouldn't have when minimizing a Powerpoint slide at a joint Microsoft Teams meeting both companies were attending.

The automotive firm, Valeo Schalter und Sensoren, claims the flashing of its source code for the assisted parking app on the call is evidence to support its accusations that the ex-staffer stole the IP before leaving to join Nvidia.

The two tech companies were both on the call as they were each suppliers on contract for a parking and driving assistance project with a major automotive OEM that was not named in the suit. Under the terms of the contract with the OEM, the suit states, engineers from both Valeo and Nvidia had to schedule collaboration meetings so that "Nvidia employees could ask Valeo employees questions about Valeo's ultrasonic hardware and data associated with the hardware."

The complaint [PDF], filed by Valeo in the US District Court for Northern California, goes on to allege misappropriation of trade secrets by Nvidia, through which the company claims the GPU-maker attempted to take a shortcut into the automotive marketplace by using its stolen software.

Nvidia is a relative newcomer to the automotive market, introducing its Nvidia Drive platform at the CES trade show in 2015. Valeo says that it only discovered the theft during a conference call on March 8, 2022 between its engineers and those of Nvidia to collaborate on work for an automotive OEM, a customer of both companies.

Valeo develops automotive hardware such as cameras and sensors, in addition to software to processes the data from the hardware.

The court filing states that Valeo previously provided the OEM in question with both hardware and software for its autonomous vehicle technology, but in this instance, it asked Valeo to provide ultrasonic hardware only. For the software side, the OEM instead chose Nvidia.

One of the Nvidia engineers on the call, named as Mohammad Moniruzzaman, was a former employee of Valeo, and during the call, made using Microsoft’s Teams software, he shared his screen in order to give a presentation containing questions for the Valeo participants.

Yet also visible on his screen after the presentation finished - or so the complaint alleges - was a window of source code, which the Valeo participants recognized as belonging to their company. According to the filing, one of the Valeo engineers succeeded in capturing a screenshot as evidence.

According to Valeo, the source code file names that were allegedly visible in the screenshot were identical to those used in its source code, and it also claims the source code appeared to be identical to proprietary code maintained in Valeo’s repositories.

The filing states:

When he minimized the PowerPoint presentation he had been sharing, however, he revealed one of Valeo's verbatim source code files open on his computer. So brazen was Mr. Moniruzzaman's theft, the file path on his screen still read 'ValeoDocs.' Valeo participants on the videoconference call immediately recognized the source code and took a screenshot before Mr. Moniruzzaman was alerted of his error. By then it was too late to cover his tracks.

The company says in the suit that it then conducted a comprehensive internal forensic IT audit, and alleges it discovered that Moniruzzaman had copied four repositories containing the code for Valeo’s parking and driving assistance software, prior to leaving the company in May 2021.

These repositories held over 27,000 files and more than 6GB of source code relating to functions such as processing of ultrasonic sensor signal data, sensor fusion for the creation of an environmental map, measuring of parking spot dimensions, park manoeuvring, and emergency braking, according to Valeo.

Those files contained "decades of dedicated work, comprising billions of dollars' worth of research and development that has allowed Valeo to become a market leader in parking and driving assistance systems and autonomous vehicle technology for motor vehicle manufacturers," the lawsuit states.

Moniruzzaman, when questioned by the German police, admitted to stealing Valeo’s software and using the code while employed at Nvidia, according to the court filing. The filing adds that he was convicted in Germany for unlawful acquisition, use and disclosure of Valeo’s trade secrets in September this year.

Crucially, Valeo contends in the complaint that the trade secrets contained in the source code files and other documentation stolen by Mr Moniruzzaman would have been shared with other Nvidia software engineers. It claims that Nvidia would have been aware that Moniruzzaman had previously worked on linking Valeo’s software with its ultrasonic sensors when it hired him.

The claim is that Valeo’s source code and documentation has been used in the development of Nvidia’s software, and this provided the GPU giant and its engineers with a shortcut in the development of its parking assistance code, saving Nvidia perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in development costs.

We asked Nvidia for its side of this story, but it declined to comment.

According to the court filing, Nvidia said it removed Moniruzzaman’s additions to its code. However, those additions underwent “a peer review process of 10-30 iterations of feedback loops” before the code was fully merged into Nvidia’s database. Valeo contends that this process of extensive edits by others means it is not realistic that Nvidia could have fully remove Moniruzzaman’s contributions.

Valeo claims it has suffered competitive harm as a result of Nvidia’s action and as a result is seeking damages, to be determined at trial, as well as an injunction prohibiting Nvidia or its employees from using or disclosing Valeo’s trade secrets. A date for jury trial has yet to be announced. ®

The case is Valeo Schalter und Sensoren GmbH v Nvidia Corporation, case number 5:23-cv-05721, filed in the northern district of California.

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