A Chinese national has been arrested in the United States over alleged industrial espionage involving tech giant Google.

The US Department of Justice (DoJ) announced that Linwei Ding (aka Leon Ding), has been charged “with four counts of theft of trade secrets in connection with an alleged plan to steal from Google LLC proprietary information related to artificial intelligence (AI) technology.”

The arrest comes after the heads of Western intelligence agencies from the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (the five eyes alliance) accused China last year of intellectual property theft and using AI for hacking purposes.

From left to right: Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Mike Burgess, Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director David Vigneault, FBI Director Christopher Wray, New Zealand Security Intelligence Service Director-General of Security and Chief Executive Andrew Hampton, and MI5 Director General Ken McCallum at the Emerging Technology and Securing Innovation Summit in Palo Alto, California, on 16 October, 2023. Image credit: FBI

Trade secrets

According to the DoJ, Linwei Ding aged 38, was arrested in Newark, California on Wednesday.

The DoJ said that Ding is a national of the People’s Republic of China but he resides in Newark.

It is alleged that Ding “transferred sensitive Google trade secrets and other confidential information from Google’s network to his personal account while secretly affiliating himself with PRC-based companies in the AI industry.”

“The Justice Department will not tolerate the theft of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies that could put our national security at risk,” said Attorney General Garland. “In this case, we allege the defendant stole artificial intelligence-related trade secrets from Google while secretly working for two companies based in China.”

“We will fiercely protect sensitive technologies developed in America from falling into the hands of those who should not have them,” Garland concluded.

AI technology

According to DoJ, Ding allegedly stole from Google over 500 confidential files containing AI trade secrets, while covertly working for China-based companies seeking an edge in the AI technology race.

“Today’s charges are the latest illustration of the lengths affiliates of companies based in the People’s Republic of China are willing to go to steal American innovation,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

FBI Director Chris Wray. Image credit: FBI

“The theft of innovative technology and trade secrets from American companies can cost jobs and have devastating economic and national security consequences,” said Wray. “The FBI will continue its efforts to vigorously pursue those responsible for stealing US companies’ intellectual property and most closely guarded secrets.”

Google engineer

Ding was employed as a software engineer at Google ever since 2019, but whilst at the technology giant, he allegedly stole technology that “involves the building blocks of Google’s advanced supercomputing data centres, which are designed to support machine learning workloads used to train and host large AI models.”

Ding’s responsibilities at Google included developing the software deployed in Google’s supercomputing data centres.

His role meant Ding was granted access to Google’s confidential information related to the hardware infrastructure, the software platform, and the AI models and applications they supported, the DoJ stated.

The DoJ allege that starting on 21 May 2022, Ding began secretly uploading trade secrets that were stored in Google’s network by copying the information into a personal Google Cloud account.

According to the indictment, Ding continued periodic uploads until 2 May 2023, by which time Ding allegedly uploaded more than 500 unique files containing confidential information.

Chinese firms

The DoJ indictment also alleges that Ding secretly affiliated himself with two China-based technology companies.

It is alleged that about 13 June 2022, Ding received several emails from the CEO of an early-stage technology company based in China (Beijing Rongshu Lianzhi Technology Co), indicating Ding had been offered the position of Chief Technology Officer.

Ding allegedly travelled to the China on 29 Oct 2022, and remained there until 25 March 2023, during which time he participated in investor meetings to raise capital for the new company.

The DoJ indictment alleges potential investors were told Ding was the new company’s Chief Technology Officer and that Ding owned 20 percent of the company’s stock.

According to the indictment, unbeknownst to Google, by no later than 30 May 2023, Ding had founded his own technology company (Shanghai Zhisuan Technology Co) in the AI and machine learning industry and was acting as the company’s CEO.

Ding’s company touted the development of a software platform designed to accelerate machine learning workloads, including training large AI models.

Ding never informed Google about his affiliation with Rongshu or Zhisuan, according to the indictment, and resigned from Google December 2023.

Google response

After he announced his resignation, Google searched his network activity history and discovered his May 2022 to May 2023 unauthorised uploads.

“We have strict safeguards to prevent the theft of our confidential commercial information and trade secrets,” Jose Castaneda, a Google spokesperson, was quoted by Reuters as saying.

“After an investigation, we found that this employee stole numerous documents, and we quickly referred the case to law enforcement,” Castaneda said.

Ding is charged with four counts of theft of trade secrets.

If convicted, Ding faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine for each count.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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