Ridesharing giant Uber has been accused of engaging in corporate espionage to “destroy” its Australian competitor GoCatch as part of a civil lawsuit expected to run for nearly three months.

Australian taxi booking service GoCatch is suing Uber in the Supreme Court of Victoria, after accusing the tech giant of gaining an unfair advantage by initially operating illegally in a number of states, as the ABC reported.

The lawsuit is also claiming Uber engaged in corporate espionage by infiltrating GoCatch’s servers and obtaining the contact details of many of its drivers in an attempt to poach them.

In a statement, Uber denied that its launch in Australia had negatively impacted GoCatch’s business and said the company would “defend the matter vigorously”.

In the case, GoCatch’s lawyers will allege that Uber developed spyware, dubbed “Surfcam” to take data from its Australian competitor’s servers, including the contact details of GoCatch drivers.

Uber then used this information to attempt to recruit these GoCatch drivers to work for Uber instead.

Internal emails obtained during the legal discovery phase revealed then-Uber general manager David Rohresheim told a colleague he wanted to “destroy” GoCatch before they got “too legit”.

“I just got my hands on something game changing – phone numbers for all GoCatch drivers,” Rohrsheim wrote to a colleague.

“Haven’t decided how to use that. Don’t want them to know.”

Rohrsheim also told a colleague that Uber had been “aggressively cold calling” the GoCatch drivers using the contact information obtained through the spyware, leading to 56 drivers switching to UberX.

“This is very clever stuff but something we must never talk about to anybody outside Uber,” he told a colleague at the time.

“It’s kosher but wouldn’t look good in public.

“Remember, we do lots of cool stuff at Uber that we can’t boast about.”

‘Any means necessary’

GoCatch co-founder Andrew Campbell said that Uber “used any means necessary to destroy GoCatch”.

GoCatch’s lawyer this week argued that Uber had launched illegally in Australia, giving it an unfair advantage in its mission to “injure” GoCatch.

GoCatch will also allege that Uber blocked and obstructed efforts by state governments to get it to comply with regulations.

When NSW Roads and Maritime Services handed Uber a warrant for not complying with passenger transport legislation, an Uber staff member sent a message to colleagues saying “we have flicked the kill switch”, the court heard.

This involved Uber not handing over some documents to the state government agency, dragging out the process and arguing that privacy laws prevented it from doing so, GoCatch’s lawyer claimed.

“The available inference is that [pointing to privacy laws] is a charade to obstruct the investigation,” the lawyer said.

An Uber spokesperson said the company should not be “liable for the failure of other P2P businesses to adapt to an emerging competitive landscape”.

“Uber is a fundamentally different business today than we were a decade ago,” the spokesperson said.

“Since then, we have made significant changes to our leadership and how we conduct business, taking seriously our responsibility to be a collaborative, contributing industry leader.”

GoCatch was backed by billionaire James Packer and hedge fund manager Alex Turnbull, but never reached the lofty heights of Uber.

It still operates as a private car and taxi booking service.

Uber last month agreed to a $272 million class action settlement with Australian taxi drivers who argued that UberX was launched before it was legal and this had impacted their livelihoods.

The fifth-largest class action settlement in Australian history will see Uber pay $271.8 million.

At the time, Uber said in a statement that when it launched in Australia a decade ago, “ridesharing regulations did not exist anywhere in the world, let alone Australia”.

“Today is different, and Uber is now regulated in every state and territory across Australia,” a company spokesperson said.