Former Apple Engineer Pleads Guilty To Stealing Driverless Car Data

A former Apple staffer has pleaded guilty on Monday to stealing trade secrets about Apple’s secretive car division.

Back in July 2018, charges were filed against the former Apple employee, Xiaolang Zhang, after he had booked a last-minute flight to China after downloading the plans for a circuit board for a self-driving car.

Zhang had been hired at Apple in December of 2015 to work on Apple’s Project Titan. His role was to develop software and hardware for use in its autonomous vehicles.

Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino

Trade secrets

Specifically, Zhang worked on Apple’s Compute Team, designing and testing circuit boards to analyse sensor data.

Zhang apparently had “broad access to secure and confidential internal databases” due to his position, which contained trade secrets and intellectual property for Apple’s autonomous driving project.

Zhang reportedly took family leave from Apple in April 2018 following the birth of his child, and during that time, he visited China.

Shortly after this, he told his supervisor at Apple he was leaving the company and moving to China to work for Xiaopeng Motors, a Chinese startup that also focuses on autonomous vehicle technology.

However Zhang’s supervisor at Apple felt that Zhang had “been evasive” during the meeting, all of which prompted an investigation by Apple’s New Product Security Team.

Data theft

They examined Zhang’s historical network activity and began analysing his Apple devices, which were seized when he resigned.

Apple reportedly discovered that just prior to Zhang’s departure, his network activity had “increased exponentially” compared to the prior two years he had worked at Apple.

He had accessed content that included prototypes and prototype requirements, including power requirements, low voltage requirements, battery system, and drivetrain suspension mounts.

A review of recorded footage at Apple also indicated Zhang had visited the campus on the evening of Saturday, 28 April 2018, entering both Apple’s autonomous vehicle software and hardware labs, which coincided with data download times, and he left with a box of hardware.

Zhang in an interview with Apple’s security people, apparently admitted to taking both online data and hardware (a Linux server and circuit boards) from Apple during his paternity leave.

He also admitted to AirDropping sensitive content from his own device to his wife’s laptop.

Apple then relayed the evidence to the FBI, and in late June Zhang was interviewed by the Feds, during which he apparently admitted to stealing the information.

Zhang was later arrested at the San Jose airport attempting to leave to China on 7 July 2018.

Guilty plea

N ow CNBC has reported that Xiaolang Zhang has pleaded guilty in a federal court in San Jose on Monday.

Zhang faces as much as 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, after pleading guilty to a felony charge of theft of trade secrets.

Sentencing is scheduled for November.

However it remains to be seen whether Zhang will be sentenced to the full ten years in prison, as his plea agreement with the US government is under seal, according to court filings on Monday.

CNBC also reported that another former Apple employee, Jizhong Chen, is also facing charges related to allegedly stealing trade secrets from Apple’s electric car division in early 2019.

In that case, Chen (a US citizen) also planned to travel to China.

Chen has not pleaded guilty and is represented by the same lawyer as Zhang. A trial date has not been set.

Theses cases highlights the problem the United States has had with Chinese firms over the past several decades, with multiple allegations of corporate espionage made by US companies.

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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