A former Apple employee working on Project Titan, the company’s autonomous car project, has pleaded guilty to stealing trade secrets. Xiaolang Zhang, a Chinese national who worked at Apple between December 2015 to May 2018, admitted to a single case of stealing a 25-page document containing detailed schematic diagrams of a circuit board used in self-driving cars.
Zhang rang alarm bells when he informed Apple that he would join Guangzhou Xiaopeng Motors Technology Co. or XPeng, a Chinese electric vehicle company backed by a $5.7 billion investment led by Alibaba, after returning from supposed paternity leave to his country.
Apple’s New Product Security Division asked Zhang, who was engaged in designing and testing sensor circuit boards, to turn in his work-issued devices (phones, computers). Apple also conducted a forensic analysis of his digital activities and how he went about on the Apple campus.
Evidently, Zhang carried out â€œbulk searchesâ€ of confidential databases he was granted access to and downloaded â€œcopious pages of information.â€ He was also caught on CCTV smuggling â€œa computer keyboard, some cables, and a large box,â€ later discovered as circuit boards and a Linux server, on April 28, 2018, a day when he was on leave.
Zhang also AirDropped tens of gigabytes of data to his wife’s laptop, more than half of which was sensitive. In May, after Zhang admitted to stealing data, Apple notified law enforcement while his employment at the Cupertino-based tech giant was terminated. Later in June, the FBI searched Zhang’s home, and he was interviewed, where he confirmed what he initially told Apple.
Zhang was intercepted and arrested while leaving the U.S. at the San Jose International Airport on a round-trip ticket to Beijing, China, in July 2018 and was indicted later in the same month.
Even though Zhang has pleaded guilty to just one countOpens a new window of the indictment filedOpens a new window by the FBI dated July 12, 2018, he faces up to 10 years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. Zhang’s sentencing is scheduled for November 14, 2022.
On Tuesday, XPeng disassociated itself from Zhang. XPeng’s answer to Tesla’s vision-based Full Self-Driving (FSD), which is offered as an upgrade to its Autopilot advanced driver assistance system (ADAS), is the LiDAR-based Xpilot that features in its flagship G9 SUV.
â€œToday, we learned from the media about the latest developments in the case of former Apple employee Zhang Xiaolang’s suspicion of stealing Apple’s trade secrets,â€ XPeng, which hopes to challenge Tesla’s EV dominance, posted on Weibo.
â€œIt has been more than four years since the incident, and XPeng is not aware of the specific circumstances of the situation and has not been involved in the follow-up investigation by the US judiciary.â€
The incident puts yet another dent in Apple’s autonomous EV project, which has already been marred by delays, poachingOpens a new window , etc. Moreover, it points to the increasing prevalence of conventional espionage, besides cyber espionage, in the technology sector.
Besides Zhang, another Chinese national, Jizhong Chen, was also accusedOpens a new window of stealing intellectual property, including manuals, schematics, and diagrams of Project Titan. Chen faces similar punishment as Zhang is found guilty.
Tesla also encountered something similar in 2018 when Guangzhi Cao, an engineer at the company, was accused of uploading 300,000 filesOpens a new window related to the source code of Autopilot to his personal iCloud account. Cao was sued by Tesla in 2019, but charges were dropped in 2021 with an undisclosed settlement amount.