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Engineer ‘stole Apple’s self-driving vehicle secrets’, booked flight to China

12 July, 2018, 03:41 | Author: Rafael Roberts
  • Apple car

In April, Zhang took paternity leave from Apple and on return informed his supervisor that he would return to China to take care of his ailing mother. Apple's work on self-driving cars is extremely secretive; just 2,700 "core" employees have access to the project's databases. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, some 5,000 of Apple's 135,000 full time employees are disclosed to parts of the initiative, though not all have access to databases containing sensitive material.

That said, there's no indication as of now that Xiaopeng Motors was working with or without the blessing of its government, and we don't know if Xiaolang Zhang came here to steal IP or merely jumped (poorly) at an opportunity.

A hardware engineer for Apple's autonomous vehicle development team, Zhang was granted access to confidential company databases, according to the complaint.

A lawyer provisionally appointed to represent Zhang did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. He resigned earlier this year to move back to China and work for a start-up named Xiaopeng Motors.

Federal agents arrested Zhang on Saturday, as he tried to go through security at Mineta San Jose International Airport, authorities said. "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", a company spokesperson told Bloomberg. When Zhang turned in his company-issued devices, Apple noticed unusual download activity, leading them to believe he may have downloaded information illegally. Security cameras and security badge swipe data also placed Zhang in company labs during his paternity leave.


The technical detail in the complaint "would only have been possible if Apple complied" with investigators, said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of SC who has studied issues around autonomous vehicles. Though he initially denied being on company property, Zhang, when confronted, admitted he was in Apple's hardware labs and had taken items including two circuit boards and a linux server. Sixty percent of the data on the laptop was found to be "highly problematic", according to Apple's forensic team.

The nature of the stolen documents also reveals something about Apple's plans.

Zhang voluntarily left Apple on May 5.

The FBI learned on July 7 that Zhang booked a last-minute fly from San Jose, Calif., to Beijing, with a final destination in Hangzhou. The flight was scheduled to depart that same day. According to Reuters, Zhang's arraignment in the United States is set for July 27 and he has yet to enter a plea. Zhang is facing up to 10 years in prison along with a massive fine of $250,000 as he breached Apple's intellectual property agreement.

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