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    A former Uber security specialist accused the company of dispatching a team of spies to steal its rivals' trade secrets and using shady tactics to thwart its competition in the ride-hailing market, according an inflammatory letter unsealed Friday by a federal judge.Those tactics allegedly included impersonating other people, illegally recording conversations and hacking into computers.Former Uber manager Richard Jacobs, who was fired earlier this year, made the explosive claims in a 37-page letter that sought a big payoff for being forced out of the company. The letter, written by a lawyer on Jacobs' behalf, has already reshaped a high-profile trial pitting Uber against Waymo, a Google spin-off that accuses its rival of stealing its self-driving car technology.The letter also has become evidence in a criminal investigation being conducted by the U.S. Justice Department. U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who is overseeing the Waymo-Uber case, took the unusual step of recommending that federal prosecutors consider a criminal probe, based on the evidence and testimony that he had reviewed long before he knew about Jacobs' letter.Although most of Jacobs' most damaging allegations were aired in court hearings held two weeks ago, the letter's release sheds more light on the no-holds-barred culture that former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick encouraged. The scandals spawned by that freewheeling culture have now become a major source of embarrassment for Uber as it tries to recast itself as more compassionate and better-behaved company under a new management team led by Dara Khosrowshahi.Over the past year, Uber has been rocked by revelations of rampant sexual harassment inside the company, technological trickery designed to thwart regulators and a yearlong cover-up of a hacking attack that stole the personal information of 57 million passengers and drivers.'While we haven't substantiated all the claims in (Jacobs') letter — importantly, any related to Waymo — our new leadership has made clear that going forward we will compete honestly and fairly, on the strength of our ideas and technology,' Uber said in a Friday statement.Many of the names and some of the information in Jacobs' letter have been redacted. Jacobs' legal team persuaded Alsup to allow those deletions to protect the identities of former CIA agents that worked with Uber's espionage team, a since disbanded unit called Marketplace Analytics.The letter alleges that two Uber security executives, Joe Sullivan and Craig Clark, played central roles in putting together the company's clandestine operations. Marketplace Analytics allegedly targeted overseas rivals and Waymo in the U.S. while creating a network of secret communications channels and alternate devices designed to cover their digital tracks and avoid legal trouble. Uber fired both Sullivan and Clark for paying $100,000 to two hackers who stole the personal information of drivers and passengers — and then covering up the theft.Uber itself tried to hack into its rivals' computer networks in an effort to scoop up valuable information, Jacobs' letter alleges. In some instances, its agents impersonated drivers and riders on its competitors' services to gain insights.The letter also alleges Uber regularly broke California law by making unauthorized recordings of phone conversations, including at least one involving a sexual harassment complaint made ay a former employee.Sullivan defended himself and the rest of his security team in a statement. 'From where I sat, my team acted ethically, with integrity, and in the best interests of our drivers and riders,' he said.Clark 'acted appropriately at all times,' said his attorney, Mark Howitson.Matthew Umhofer, an attorney representing several other Uber security team members fingered in the letter, derided the document as 'nothing more than a character assassination for cash.'Uber wound up reaching a $7.5 million settlement with Jacobs and his lawyer, Clayton Halunen, even though one of the company's top attorneys considered Jacobs' letter to be little more than blackmail.Waymo is focused on a section of the letter alleging that Uber's espionage unit sought to steal its trade secrets. But Jacobs testified last month that the lawyer who wrote the letter was mistaken about that allegation. Jacobs said he missed the error because he only spent about 20 minutes reviewing the letter before it was sent to Uber in early May.Waymo also asserts that Uber improperly concealed Jacobs' letter during the evidence-gathering phase of a trial that was supposed to start Dec. 4. (It has been rescheduled for Feb. 5.) A special master appointed by Alsup concluded that Uber should have turned Jacobs' letter over to Waymo to help prepare for the trial, according to a report he filed Friday.Although Uber has tried to publicly depict Jacobs as a disgruntled former employee who didn't do his job, internal emails from Uber executives conceded some of his claims had merit.For instance, Jacobs alleged that Uber's espionage team spied on the executives of its overseas rivals. Tony West, who became Uber's chief legal officer last month, recently sent an email to Uber's security team condemning a surveillance program that he said had been stopped.'There is no place for such practices or that kind of behavior at Uber,' West wrote in the Nov. 29 email obtained by The Associated Press. 'We don't need to be following folks around in order to gain some competitive advantage. We're better than that. We will compete and we will win because our technology is better, our ideas are better, and our people are better.
  • The coming union of Disney and Fox is set to create a new nirvana for fanboys and -girls. It will reunite superheroes and science-fiction characters long separated by an energy barrier of corporate legalism.For years, Marvel characters from the X-Men and the Fantastic Four have battled bad dudes from the studios of 20th Century Fox.Meanwhile, Marvel's Avengers such as Iron Man and Black Widow vanquished villains in Disney's corner of the galaxy.And the rights to various 'Star Wars' films have been scattered far, far away from each other.Those will all be unified under the Magic Kingdom. Disney announced Thursday it's buying most of Fox for $52 billion.The combined company will account for more than a third of theatrical revenues in the U.S. and Canada.
  • Hard cash is tough to find in Venezuela as the country struggles with financial hardship. So residents in the capital on Friday unveiled their own currency.The panal, which means honeycomb in Spanish, can be spent in just a few stores. But residents of one neighborhood desperate for spending cash said they welcome the idea proposed by pro-government groups.'There is no cash on the street,' said Liset Sanchez, a 36-year-old housewife who plans to use her freshly printed panals to buy rice for her family. 'This currency is going to be a great help for us.'Amid triple-digit inflation and a currency meltdown, there has been a run on cash in Venezuela.Buying common items such as toilet paper, or paying a taxi driver, requires stacks of the official currency, called the bolivar.President Nicolas Maduro recently announced that Venezuela is launching a national digital currency called the petro, similar to bitcoin. But he has offered few details.Salvador Salas, a community leader who unveiled the panal, said its circulation is limited to one poor neighborhood. Initially 62,000 bills have been printed — ones, fives and 10s, he said. One brightly colored bill has a picture of the late President Hugo Chavez wearing a red shirt with his arm raised as if giving a fiery speech.One panal is equal to 5,000 bolivars, or about $1.50 at the official exchange rate and about five cents on the black market.The panal revives a concept promoted by Chavez, who proposed 10 communal currencies before his death in 2013.Jose Guerra, an opposition politician, knocked the idea of an alternative currency. He said that having multiple currencies could add 'monetary chaos' to the ongoing economic crisis.
  • Count commuters among the losers in the Republican tax bill that the House and Senate are expected to vote on next week.The final bill agreed to by Republican negotiators and released late Friday eliminates the tax incentive for private employers that subsidize their employees' transit, parking and bicycle commuting expenses.Currently, companies can provide parking or transit passes worth up to $255 a month to employees as a benefit to help pay for their commuting expenses, and then deduct the costs from their corporate taxes. That amount was set to increase to $260 a month on Jan. 1.The reasoning behind the elimination of the deduction is that since the tax bill substantially lowers the corporate tax rate, smaller tax breaks that complicate the tax code are no longer necessary. Companies could still provide the parking and transit passes to employees, but they would no longer get the tax deduction. And employees who pay for their own transportation costs can still use pre-tax income.The elimination of the subsidy has transit agencies worried that fewer commuters will opt for transit.'It's clearly a negative for commuters who are spending a lot of money on public transportation,' said Rob Healy, vice president for governmental affairs at the American Public Transportation Association. The employer subsidies are generally more lucrative for commuters than the ability to use pre-tax income for transportation costs, he said.'The concern is that if employers can't write it off, they won't offer it. And if they don't offer it, it's a loss to the employees,' Healy said. 'It could ultimately hurt the ridership.'Businesses that provide their employees with $20 per month to cover the expense of commuting by bicycle would also no longer be able to write off the benefit under the tax bill. Without that incentive, the relatively few employers offering the benefit may discontinue it, said Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists.Bicyclists can use the benefit to offset the cost of a new bicycle or pay for helmets, locks, lights or maintenance like new tires, McLeod said. The money doesn't count toward employee earnings, he said.Getting rid of the bicycle benefit, which was adopted in 2009, would save the government a relatively low $5 million a year, McLeod said. By comparison, the parking benefit costs the government about $7.3 billion a year in foregone taxes, according to a report by TransitCenter, a transit advocacy group.The House version of the tax bill retained the benefit, but the Senate version eliminated it even though more than 1,500 bicyclists contacted members of the Senate Finance Committee to try to persuade them to keep the write-off, he said.'Growth in commuting by bicycle contributes to reducing congestion, promoting good health and supporting a low-cost mode of transportation for all Americans,' 20 bicycle, community, and sports and outdoor industry groups said in a letter to the committee's chairman, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and senior Democrat, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.What bothers bicyclists the most, McLeod said, isn't so much the money, but 'just that it feels like the federal government doesn't support biking.'I don't know if that is something the legislators meant to express,' he said, 'but that's something we're definitely hearing.'___Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy
  • The Republicans' tax package would boost traditional forms of energy such as oil and gas while also supporting renewable energy such as wind and solar power — and even extend a hand to buyers of electric cars.An agreement by House and Senate negotiators would open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, while preserving tax credits for wind power and other clean energy. The bill also would extend a tax credit of up to $7,500 for purchases of plug-in electric vehicles such as the Tesla Model 3 and Chevrolet Bolt.Republicans rolled out the bill late Friday.Opening the remote Arctic refuge to oil and gas drilling is a longtime Republican priority that most Democrats fiercely oppose. The 19.6-million-acre refuge in northeastern Alaska is one of the most pristine areas in the United States and is home to polar bears, caribou, migratory birds and other wildlife.Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and other Republicans say drilling can be done safely with new technology, while ensuring a steady energy supply for West Coast refineries.Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said opening the refuge to drilling is 'the single-most important step we can take to strengthen our long-term energy security and create new wealth.'The House and Senate are expected to vote on the $1.5 trillion tax legislation next week as GOP leaders push the most sweeping rewrite of the tax code in more than three decades.The bill preserves a phase-out of tax incentives for both the solar and wind industries passed in 2015. Tax credits for wind are set to expire in 2020, and solar credits in 2022.The wind-energy credits are popular with some Republicans, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and South Dakota Sen. John Thune, who worked to defend them after they were curtailed in a version passed by the House.Electric cars comprise just about 1 percent of sales nationwide, but several states have mandates that such 'zero emission vehicles' make up a much larger portion of vehicle sales. Manufacturers worry that eliminating the tax credit would have made those targets virtually impossible to meet.The Arctic refuge has been the focus of a political fight for nearly four decades. Former President Bill Clinton vetoed a GOP plan to allow drilling in the refuge in 1995, and Democrats led by Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell defeated a similar plan in 2005.Most congressional Republicans support the drilling plan, including veteran Alaska Rep. Don Young, one of the plan's negotiators. Young called drilling 'crucially important to the nation' and said it would decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil and create jobs for Alaskans.Democrats and environmental groups say the GOP plan risks spoiling one of the nation's most pristine areas and is especially unwise at a time when U.S. oil production is booming, with imports declining and exports reaching record levels.Lawmakers 'do not need to ruin a wildlife refuge and an ecosystem that is intact just to give tax breaks to big corporations,' Cantwell said. 'We can do better than this.
  • Republicans didn't get their wish to repeal former President Barack Obama's health care law, but the tax bill barreling toward a final vote in Congress guts its most unpopular provision, the requirement that virtually all Americans carry health insurance.Politically, the move is a winner for Republicans, who otherwise would have little to show for all their rhetoric about 'Obamacare.'But if estimates by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office are right, it will lead to more people being uninsured and higher premiums for those buying individual health insurance policies.And Congress may then find itself considering other ways to nudge people to get health insurance.The CBO estimates that repealing the requirement would lead to more people taking a gamble on going without coverage, raising the number of uninsured Americans by 4 million in 2019 and by 13 million a decade from now. The federal government would save about $338 billion over a decade because fewer people would seek subsidized coverage under the Affordable Care Act. But premiums for individual plans would go up about 10 percent because the people left behind would tend to be sicker.Independent experts debate the precise impact, noting that with about 28 million people still uninsured, the so-called individual mandate doesn't seem to have worked very well in the first place.'The data is very murky on how much of an effect the individual mandate has had,' said Larry Levitt of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. 'I think it's likely that millions more people will be uninsured with the individual mandate repealed but not to the extent that CBO projected. Insurance premiums will certainly go up.'Other major elements of 'Obamacare' would remain in place, including its subsidies for premiums, protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions and its requirement that insurers cover a broad range of 'essential' benefits. Little impact is seen on employer plans, the mainstay for workers and their families.The insurance requirement is enforced through fines collected by the IRS. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the people who have been paying the fines are workers with modest incomes — the group that the health law was supposed to help in the first place.Health economist Gail Wilensky said repealing the mandate might take some of the political steam out of the health care debate. It may even point to a path for lawmakers of both major parties to consider measures that would help stabilize insurance markets for people who don't get coverage on the job.It 'may be enough to take away what has been the single most hated part of the ACA for both Republicans and Democrats,' said Wilensky, who served in a previous Republican administration.But that won't solve the problem of providing affordable coverage for people who don't qualify for subsidies through 'Obamacare.'President Donald Trump's administration is working on another track: regulations that would allow broader sale of lower-cost plans with limited benefits.How much consumer appeal that alternative will have remains to be seen.
  • It's not quite like tobacco companies warning about the dangers of smoking, but Facebook is acknowledging something many already know: Using social media can be bad for your health.The social media giant whose platform has become a daily addiction for hundreds of millions of people sheds light in a blog post Friday on what it says are two sides of the issue.It notes research showing an increase in teen depression with technology use. It also points to its own research that shows improvements in well-being from interacting with close friends online.Facebook, of course, thrives when people engage with its platform.Facebook's Director of Research David Ginsberg and research scientist Moira Burke cite a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that found University of Michigan students randomly assigned to read Facebook for 10 minutes were in a worse mood at the end of the day than students assigned to post or talk to friends on the platform.It also cited research that Facebook researcher Burke conducted with a Carnegie Mellon professor that it says shows sending or receiving direct messages or posts and comments on one's timeline boost psychological well-being.'Simply broadcasting status updates wasn't enough; people had to interact one-on-one with others in their network,' the company says in its blog.
  • Amazon is angling for a truce in its two-year battle with Apple and Google over streaming gadgets: It says it is preparing to put Apple TV and Chromecast back on sale.A spokeswoman for Amazon confirmed Friday it is preparing to sell the devices. However, fresh links for the products that went live on Thursday indicate they are still unavailable.Amazon stopped selling Apple TV streaming devices in late 2015 in retaliation for Apple not making Amazon's Prime Video app available on Apple TVs. It said at the time the move was to reduce possible confusion caused by items sold on its store not playing videos bundled with its Prime shipping plan. It also stopped selling Google's popular Chromecast streaming device that year.In a major sign of the coming armistice, Apple made the Prime Video app available on Apple TV last week.Amazon's decision to start reselling Google's Chromecast comes after the search giant had stepped up the pressure by threatening to pull its subsidiary YouTube from Amazon's Fire TV on Jan. 1.Google had said last week that it would also disable YouTube on Amazon's new voice-activated speaker that comes with a screen attached — the Echo Show. Shortly after, Amazon also stopped selling Nest's Thermostat E, which had once been 'Amazon's Choice' in home programmable thermostats. Nest, like Google, is part of Alphabet Inc.Google argued that Amazon's version of YouTube was unauthorized and a violation of its terms of service because it initially failed to support features like the ability to log in, comment and see one's subscribed channels. Google had also pulled YouTube from Windows Phone platforms in 2013 when the app failed to live up to its standards.Mountain View, California-based Google hailed Amazon's move, saying it is in 'productive discussions with Amazon to reach an agreement for the benefit of our mutual customers.' Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
  • Italian tax authorities say Amazon will pay 100 million euros ($118 million) to end a dispute over its tax payments from 2011-2015.The agreement announced Friday comes as many European countries seek to close loopholes in tax payments by major multinationals.Amazon confirmed the agreement in a statement, without disclosing the amount it would pay.The internet retailer headquartered in the U.S. state of Washington said it set up an Italian branch in May 2015 'with all retail revenues, expenses, profits and taxes due now accounted for in Italy.'It further said it had invested more than 800 million euros in Italy and created 3,000 jobs since 2010.Italian tax authorities have reached similar deals with Google and Apple.
  • A maker of lithium batteries is promising to provide an economic jolt to the Appalachian region, announcing plans Friday to relocate from California to Kentucky and build a factory employing hundreds of workers in an area reeling from the coal industry's decline. EnerBlu Inc. announced it will invest $372 million and create 875 full-time jobs in eastern Kentucky with the production facility in Pikeville. The company also will move its headquarters from Riverside, California, bringing another $40 million investment and 110 administrative, research-and-development and executive jobs to Lexington, Kentucky's second-largest city. The Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority has given preliminary approval for incentives worth up to $30 million over 15 years for EnerBlu's facilities. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers were among state and regional leaders who gathered in Pikeville to cheer EnerBlu's announcement. The governor predicted the company's arrival would transform a region where coal jobs have disappeared. 'We are not going to live down to the stereoptypes people have of us,' the governor said. 'We're going to dispel those, and we're going to rise above them and blow people's minds.' Rogers, who represents eastern Kentucky, called the announcement a 'big step' toward 'evolving the economy of a whole region.' It shows other businesses that eastern Kentucky 'is a good place to be,' the Republican congressman said. 'This is where we've got a lot of workers needing work that are ... capable, ready to go,' he said. Rogers also expressed hopes that people who left their homes in search of jobs will come back. 'We've got a labor pool that extends far beyond the boundaries of eastern Kentucky, dying to come home,' he said. 'And this will give them a chance to do just that.' The company pointed to the availability of workers, low power costs and Kentucky's location within a day's drive of 65 percent of the nation's population as factors in its choice. 'You cannot imagine how thrilling it is to play a part in helping revitalize a region and put coal miners back to work through retraining and good jobs,' said Michael Weber, executive chairman at EnerBlu. 'It is tremendously gratifying to be more than just a company that sells products, but to also make an impact on people's lives.' The Pikeville plant will manufacture rechargeable lithium titanate batteries that power transit buses, commercial trucks, military vehicles and other equipment. Construction is scheduled to start in mid-2018, with the opening in 2020. The new headquarters office is expected to open early next year. Also in eastern Kentucky, Braidy Industries announced plans in April to build a $1.3 billion aluminum plant in Greenup County that would create 550 full time jobs. Kentucky taxpayers own 20 percent of the company after the state legislature approved a last-minute request from Bevin, without knowing how the money would be spent. ___ Associated Press Writer Adam Beam in Frankfort, Ky., contributed to this report.