A former Apple engineer has been charged by the FBI with theft of trade secrets related to Apple’s autonomous car project, MacRumors reports. Xiaolang Zhang was hired by Apple in late 2015 to work developing software and hardware for Apple’s Project Titan team, which gave him “broad access to secure and confidential internal databases” containing trade secrets and intellectual property for the project. In April 2018, Zhang took paternity leave from Apple and visited China, later telling his supervisor that he would be leaving Apple to work for a Chinese autonomous vehicle startup XMotors. Suspicions raised during Zhang’s resignation meeting led Apple’s Product Security Team to investigate, discovering that he had accessed a significant amount of confidential information just prior to his departure, including information on prototypes such as power requirements, low voltage requirements, battery system, and drivetrain suspension mounts. The FBI affidavit for the criminal complaint notes that “the majority of [Zhang’s] activity consisted of both bulk searches and targeted downloading copious pages of information from various confidential database applications.” The team also reviewed recorded video footage showing Zhang visiting the Apple campus on April 28 — the time period of the data download — and leaving the labs with a box of hardware.
Zhang was subsequently interviewed by FBI agents on June 27 while executing a search warrant for his house, and admitted to agents at that time that he had taken files from the project and transferred them to his wife’s laptop computer “for access in the future.” When FBI agents learned last week that Zhang had purchased a ticket to Beijing, they arrested him in the security zone at San Jose airport for the Federal crime of theft of trade secrets, an offence that could result in up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. An Apple spokesperson responded to the case in a statement to TechCrunch, saying that “Apple takes confidentiality and the protection of our intellectual property very seriously. 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.” XMotors also told Reuters that there is no indication that Zhang ever communicated any sensitive information from Apple to XMotors, and that it has already terminated Zhang after it was informed of the investigation in late June and is continuing to support local authorities in the investigation.