Apple engineer arrested for stealing secret files on self-driving auto

Former Apple employee faces up to 10 years in prison, $250K fine for stealing Project Titan trade secrets

The criminal complaint says Zhang was hired to develop software and hardware for Apple's autonomous vehicle project, where he designed and tested circuit boards to analyze sensor data. When notified in late June that US authorities were investigating Zhang, his computer and office equipment was secured and he was denied access to his work, she said. He was arrested on July 7 after going through the security gates at San Jose airport. Zhang Xiaolang, once a hardware engineer for Apple's driverless auto development team, told the company in April that he was leaving to go back to China and work at Xiaopeng Motors or XMotors, which is also developing autonomous vehicles.

Authorities say Zhang admitted to downloading classified files onto his wife's laptop, so he could access them after he turned in his work phone and computer when he resigned.

Apple's rumored self-driving auto is back in the spotlight, this time because an ex-employee allegedly tried to steal trade secrets about the project. Operating under an emergency law, the US Treasury Department plans to increase scrutiny of Chinese investment in US industries including new-energy vehicles, robotics, and aerospace, sources tell Bloomberg. Zhang told agents he meant to get job at Xmotors, a startup working on electric and self-driving vehicles, and that he had placed 40GB of Apple's data onto his wife's laptop. Given the fact that even more technical details could come out at trial, "that's striking in its own right" and shows the importance Apple places on protecting its technology, he said.

Following that, his supervisor at Apple felt like he had been evasive during his final meeting.

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But Apple may have large numbers of employees working on the project because the process of making a computer "see" the world around it for a self-driving auto can be applied to other products, said Sertac Karaman, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founder of a self-driving shuttle startup called Optimus Ride. The self-driving space is exceptionally competitive, with dozens of companies across the world trying to take the lead in the burgeoning field. According to the complaint, Zhang initially denied to Apple security being on the campus during his leave but when confronted with the evidence, admitted he was there and that he removed items from the labs. The information Zhang took was "largely technical in nature, including engineering schematics, technical reference materials, and technical reports".

In a statement to TechCrunch, the company said: "Apple takes confidentiality and the protection of our intellectual property very seriously".

About 5,000 of Apple's more than 135,000 full-time employees are disclosed on the auto project.

Zhang later admitted to taking circuit boards and a Linux server from the hardware lab, and to transferring some Apple files to his wife's computer, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Apple has kept that research and development a closely guarded secret, and authorities said Zhang was granted broad access to confidential internal databases.

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