Ex-Apple employee accused of stealing autonomous car secrets

11 Jul 2018

Red traffic light at Apple building, Japan. Image: Zomby/Shutterstock

Former Apple employee Xiaolang Zhang charged with theft of trade secrets.

The FBI has charged a former Apple employee with the alleged theft of trade secrets related to Project Titan, the tech giant’s self-driving car effort.

According to documents filed with the northern district court of California, former Apple employee Xiaolang Zhang worked on Apple’s compute team, which designed circuit boards to analyse sensor data.

‘Apple takes confidentiality and the protection of our intellectual property very seriously’

Zhang was provided with broad access to “secure and confidential internal databases”.

It is alleged that he took paternity leave from Apple and visited China. On his return, he told his supervisor that he was moving back to China to work for an autonomous vehicle start-up called XMotors, which has offices in Silicon Valley.

Supervisors were suspicious about Zhang’s motives and alerted the Apple new product security team, and an investigation into his network activity and devices found that he had accessed content that includes prototypes of future products.

Zhang was arrested at the weekend as he tried to board a plane to Beijing.

Apple’s Project Titan is revving up

If anything, the case shows Apple is taking the self-driving car opportunity very seriously.

The data accessed by Zhang is alleged to include vehicle power requirements, battery system and drivetrain suspension mounts.

The investigation revealed that Zhang, while on paternity leave, entered Apple’s software and hardware labs – coinciding with the exponential increase in download times – and footage showed him leaving the campus with a box of hardware. He initially denied he was on campus but admitted the truth when presented with the footage.

In an interview with the security team, Zhang admitted to taking the online data, a Linux server and circuit boards as well as sending sensitive content from his own device to his wife’s laptop via AirDrop.

The data, which included a 25-page blueprint for a self-driving car, is understood to be highly technical in nature and up to 60pc of it was described as “problematic” for Apple.

“The majority of his activity consisted of both bulk searches and targeted downloading copious pages of information from various confidential database applications,” according to the filing.

“The information contained within the downloading contained trade secret intellectual property, based on the level of Zhang’s access within Apple’s autonomous vehicle team.”

If found guilty, Zhang faces 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“Apple takes confidentiality and the protection of our intellectual property very seriously,” Apple said in a statement.

“We’re working with authorities on this matter and will do everything possible to make sure this individual and other individuals involved are held accountable for their actions.”

Red traffic light at Apple building, Japan. Image: Zomby/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years