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FBI charges former Apple engineer with stealing trade secrets to smuggle to China

Published Jul 10th, 2018 4:56PM EDT
Apple self-driving car rumors, trade secrets stolen
Image: thanat sasipatanapa

In the cut-throat world of self-driving cars, it seems that no company server is safe from former employees who are looking to cut and run to a rival firm. The FBI has charged former Apple autonomous vehicle engineer Xiaolang Zhang with stealing trade secrets, claiming in a court filing that Zhang stole data and hardware from Apple while on paternity leave. Zhang was arrested while attempting to leave the US for China, where he apparently had a job lined up with Chinese self-driving car firm X-Motors.

According to the criminal complaint uploaded by MacRumors, Zhang was a hardware engineer working inside Apple’s self-driving car team to design and test circuit boards that would analyze sensor data. Zhang took paternity leave in April 2018, following the birth of his child, during which he traveled to China. According to the complaint, Zhang met with his supervisors following his return and told them he would be leaving to work for X-Motors. His supervisors were surprised by his change of heart and attitude during his exit interview, so called in Apple’s formidable security team.

Following a brief investigation, Apple security determined Zhang had entered the building on April 28th, before handing in his resignation, and left with a box of hardware. He also accessed and copied information on self-driving car hardware and prototypes. After being confronted with this information during a second interview, Zhang admitted to stealing the information to Apple security, and also to transferring it onto his wife’s computer. He was later interviewed by the FBI, and finally arrested at San Jose airport while trying to take a last-minute flight to China.

The incident once again shows how valuable internal research is on self-driving car projects, since the industry is still in its infancy. Moreover, it also provides a rare glimpse into Apple’s self-driving car project. 5,000 employees reportedly had access to the information that Zhang stole, with 2,700 of those listed as “core employees.” Apple has long been known to be working on some kind of autonomous vehicle project, but the number of employees seemingly assigned shows that it’s not just casual research.

The nature of the stolen documents also reveals something about Apple’s plans. Court filings show that some of the stolen documents included battery system and drivetrain suspension components, the kind of thing that would only exist (and be worth stealing!) if Apple is working on a self-driving car of its own.