The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation charged former Apple employee Xiaolang Zhang with stealing trade secrets. Zhang was hired back in December of 2015 by Apple to work on Project Titan, focusing mainly on software and hardware for autonomous vehicles.
As reported by Bloomberg, the charge was found in documents filed with the Northern District Court of California. Zhang’s duties were to design and test circuit boards that were capable of analyzing sensor data.
A hardware engineer for Apple’s autonomous vehicle development team, Zhang was granted access to confidential company databases, according to the complaint. After he took paternity leave he told Apple in April he was moving back to China to work at Xmotors. Apple grew more suspicious after seeing his increased network activity and visits to the office before he resigned, according to the complaint.
Fast forward a couple of years and in April of 2018, Zhang took family leave after the birth of his child, and visited China during this time. Shortly after, he told his supervisor at Apple that he was leaving the company and moved to China to work for XMotors, a Chinese-based startup that is also focusing on autonomous tech for cars.
Following that, his supervisor at Apple felt like he had been evasive during his final meeting. This lead Apple’s New Product Security Team to begin an investigation into his network activity and Apple devices, which were surrendered when he left the company.
Apple began to grow increasingly suspicious of his network activity. He had accessed data regarding things like prototypes.
Security footage at Apple indicated that Zhang had visited the campus on Saturday, April 28, and entered Apple’s autonomous vehicle software and hardware labs. Upon looking at time stamps, this visit coincided with data download times, and Zhang left with a box of hardware.
Zhang admitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that he downloaded Apple driverless technology files to his wife’s laptop to have continued access to them, according to the complaint. He was arrested July 7.
All evidence was forwarded to the FBI after Apple’s Digital Forensic Investigations team discovered that at least 60% of the downloaded data that was transferred over to his wife’s computer was problematic. The report says that the FBI describes the information as “largely technical in nature, including engineering schematics, technical reference manuals, and technical reports.”
Zhang was required to sign an Intellectual Property Agreement and attended mandatory in-person secrecy training sessions when he was hired. Obviously, he’s now violated that agreement. After being interviewed by the FBI in late June, Zhang admitted to stealing the information and was arrested on July 7 for attempting to leave to China.
Zhang is now facing up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
In a statement, Apple explained that it is working with authorities to make sure he his held accountable for his actions.
“Apple takes confidentiality and the protection of our intellectual property very seriously,” company spokesman Tom Neumayr said in an email. “We’re working with authorities on this matter and will do everything possible to make sure this individual and any other individuals involved are held accountable for their actions.”