A former Apple employee has been charged by federal prosecutors with stealing trade secrets relating to the computer and phone giant’s self-driving car program. According to the FBI, Xiaolang Zhang was attempting to take these trade secrets to a Chinese self-driving startup.
As detailed by FBI Agent Eric Proudfoot in an affidavit, Zhang used his position within Apple’s secretive program to access secret information the same day he announced his resignation within the company.
Zhang began working at Apple in December 2015 on a program whose details are a “closely guarded secret that has never been revealed,” as Proudfoot describes it. Apple’s self-driving program has been the stuff of rumor for years, ranging from an electric car to not building a car at all, and just focusing on software.
Regardless, Zhang worked on what was known as the Compute Team, designing and testing circuit boards to analyze sensor data generated by Apple’s self-driving program in some way. Zhang’s role allowed him to move between a variety of teams and confidential databases, Proudfoot claims.
Things were nominally normal until April 2018, when Zhang took paternity leave in China. A new father, when he returned to Apple on April 30 he told his supervisor that he would be leaving the company. He wanted to move back to China, he said, to spend time with his ailing mother. Over the course of the conversation, he announced he would be taking a job with XMotors, a Chinese company focused on self-driving in electric vehicles.
Zhang’s supervisor felt he had been evasive during their meeting and contacted Apple’s New Product Security Division. At the end of another meeting, Zhang was asked to turn in all of his Apple products and was escorted from the Apple campus.
After Zhang left, the company began overviewing his time there ranging from physical searches to forensic examinations of his devices. What they found was that in the days before and up to his firing, Zhang’s activity consisted of a rapidly rising number of bulk searches and targeted downloading of confidential data.
In two days, April 28 and April 30, 2018, Zhang generated nearly as many rows of user activity in a database known as Database A (609) as he had in a whole month (610). With Database B, as the government calls it, he was accessing thousands of more documents in two days period (3,390) than he had in several months put together.
The evidence began to pile up when Apple found CCTV footage of Zhang on the company’s California campus during what was supposed to be his paternity leave. Zhang was seen removing the information from the campus for 4 hours, a serious violation. When confronted by Apple security, Proudfoot says, Zhang claimed that he was studying the technology out of personal interest.
Officially terminated on May 5, Zhang told Apple that he still had plans to move to China. On July 7, he purchased a last-minute ticket to Beijing with no co-passengers. The FBI arrested Zhang at San Jose International Airport after he had passed through the security checkpoint.
XMotors, speaking to Reuters, says there is “no indication” that Zhang passed along information. The company also notes that it has fired Zhang and is working with local authorities on the case.
Information around major self-driving programs remains some of the most exclusive and secretive data in the world. Companies have fought vicious lawsuits in attempts to protect their self-driving secrets, and given how wide open the potential market is for the technology there is little sign the tensions will end any time soon.
— With assistance by David Grossman