After subpoenaing Apple in trade secrets case, Tesla goes after Facebook


Enlarge / The front view of Tesla’s new Model 3 car on display is seen on Friday, January 26, 2018, at the Tesla store in Washington, D.C.

Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

In an ongoing high-stakes lawsuit, Tesla has now asked a judge for emergency permission to serve subpoenas on numerous tech firms, including Facebook and Dropbox. Tesla believes these companies hold data connected to a recently-fired technician that the auto company says stole its trade secrets.

US Magistrate Judge Valerie P. Cooke in Nevada had already granted Tesla permission on Monday to serve Microsoft, Google, and Apple with similar subpoenas in the case filed against Martin Tripp, whom CEO Elon Musk has suggested is a saboteur.

Tripp previously worked at the Gigafactory in Sparks, Nevada, which manufactures Tesla’s batteries. The former employee insists that he is a whistleblower. He has previously told Ars that he witnessed large quantities of waste and that “punctured” cells as part of batteries were allowed to ship.

For its part, Tesla has strongly denied that any such damaged batteries made it into any Model 3. The company said in a statement that “Tripp is either not telling the truth or he simply has no idea what he is talking about.”

Musk has previously said publicly that Tripp is among a group of “bad apples” that are trying to thwart the company’s efforts to rapidly ramp up production of the Model 3. Recently, Tesla expanded its production facilities to an assembly line underneath a temporary tent-like structure—an unprecedented move in the auto manufacturing industry. Since bringing a case against Tripp, Tesla has not filed any new similar lawsuits.

In the new Tuesday filing, lawyers for Tesla said that Tripp “may be using additional services to divulge Tesla’s confidential and proprietary information, including AT&T Wireless, Facebook, Inc., WhatsApp, Inc., Open Whisper Systems, and Dropbox, Inc.”

If Tesla isn’t able to get the data held on numerous Tripp accounts preserved, the company argued, “critical evidence of Tripp’s unlawful activities will forever be lost, causing obvious and severe prejudice to Tesla and potentially preventing justice from being served.”

Tripp did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.

The lawsuit began a week ago, when Tesla sued Tripp, accusing him of “writing software that hacked Tesla’s manufacturing operating system” and attempting to exfiltrate “several gigabytes of Tesla data to outside entities.”

Tripp has previous denied to Ars that he wrote any such software, saying that he does not know how to code. However, he has admitted leaking information to the media earlier this year through outlets including Business Insider.

“Too critical to not take action”

In an earlier court filing submitted on June 22, one of Tesla’s IT staff, Andrew Lindemulder, wrote that in a June 14 interview prior to his firing, Tripp “admitted to transferring Tesla’s confidential and trade secret data outside of the company, including via his personal email and cloud storage accounts with Apple (iCloud) and Microsoft (OneDrive and SharePoint). Tripp also admitted that he had been deleting such materials to ‘cover [his] tracks.’”

When Ars showed Tripp this court filing for the first time, he scoffed that he had tried to conceal his actions.

“That guy [Lindemulder] deleted all the files off my phone lol,” he wrote. “In front of three other people. So I had all the pics and files I took on my iCloud. They forced me to delete the all the files right in front of them.”

Tripp said that once confronted, he “was trying to be honest with them and help.” And as to whether he was trying to conceal what he’d done, Tripp was unequivocal.

“I NEVER said I was covering my tracks,” he continued. “They started off by asking about my concerns of scrap, waste, and safety concerns. So [I] informed them of everything. They then went into the Business Insider report and eventually showed me some specific numbers and that I had run a tableau report that showed those exact numbers. And that was it. They were just threatening me at the end that if I didn’t tell them how I was logged into nine computers/how I wrote the hacking software, that I would be in more trouble than if I answers truthfully. I laughed at them (hysterically) when they made those allegations. They got very pissed. Too bad. I do not know how to code, definitely never logged into any computers I didn’t have [issued] to me, and DEFINITELY don’t know how to get data that keeps feeding to outside Tesla lol! I was completely truthful and forthcoming with them.”

Tripp maintained that he “just ran a standard query that some engineer wrote. Filters on part number, the state (scrap), and the date/date range.”

“When I was running [the] query I wasn’t concerned because it was part of my job,” he added. “When I found out about the 732 potentially punctured cells that are in cars driving around right now, that’s when I became so concerned about public safety and felt I had to do something. I realized there was a possibility of getting caught, but the impact of DEATH to any consumer was too critical to not take action.”

When Ars asked again if he had told anyone from Tesla that he was trying to cover his tracks, Tripp again denied it.

“Yes, I never said that. I may have said ‘deleted pictures as I go’, but who wouldn’t do that?” he said “I was then told to delete EVERYTHING I had. Then later they said ‘instead of deleting, we now want you to ‘preserve.’ Most likely because they spoke to their attorney.”

On June 22, Tesla said in a court document that it could not submit a formal preservation order to Tripp himself as he had not yet made a formal appearance, via an attorney, in the case.

As of Monday evening, Tripp initially said he would not seek an attorney, after being put off by the high cost of representation. He said he had been quoted $300,000 to $400,000 with $50,000 down. But the pressure of the situation may ultimately change his mind.

“I’m stressing out pretty bad here,” he told Ars. “$50,000 is a lot of money that I just don’t have. Just had someone message me saying ‘justice is coming.’ [That] made it real. I need an attorney.”

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