Self-Driving Cars

Former Apple Employee Charged With Stealing Self-Driving Car Secrets

Charges against Xiaolang Zhang allege that the Apple engineer was going to take self-driving car tech to a Chinese company.

Daniel Oberhaus

Daniel Oberhaus

Image: Getty

A former Apple engineer was hit with criminal charges on Monday that claim he stole information about self-driving car technology with the intent to give it to a Chinese company.

Xiaolang Zhang was arrested as he tried to go through security at San Jose International Airport on Saturday after buying last-minute tickets to Beijing, China, according to the criminal complaint reviewed by Motherboard.

Zhang started working on self-driving cars at Apple in December 2015, where he designed and tested circuit boards that would analyze sensor data from the vehicles. According to the complaint, Zhang’s role in Apple’s self-driving car program meant he had access to confidential databases of trade secrets related to Apple’s autonomous vehicles.

Zhang took paternity leave from Apple in April and traveled with his family to China, the complaint says. Upon his return, he met with his boss at Apple and said he was resigning and moving to China to take care of his ailing mother. During that meeting, the complaint alleges Zhang also said he intended to work for Xmotors, a Chinese autonomous vehicle company.

According to the complaint, Zhang’s supervisor called Apple’s “New Product Security Division”, who told Zhang to hand in all his Apple-owned devices before he was escorted from Apple’s offices.

An Apple self-driving car in the wild. Image via Twitter user idiggapple

Apple’s security division then examined its databases for Zhang’s network activity and ran forensic analyses of his devices. It found that Zhang’s network activity increased “exponentially” in the days before he resigned, the complaint alleges.

The activity included “bulk searches and targeted downloading copious pages of information” that contained secret intellectual property related to Apple’s self-driving car program. This information was then air-dropped onto a non-Apple computer that Zhang later said belongs to his wife, according to the complaint.

Two days before Zhang resigned, security footage showed him arriving at Apple’s office at night, entering the self-driving car lab, and then leaving Apple’s campus with an unmarked box, the complaint alleges. In a follow-up interview with his boss, Zhang allegedly revealed that the box contained two circuit boards and a Linux server from the lab.

According to the complaint, Zhang said he had taken the proprietary information from Apple’s database because he had “an interest in platforms and wanted to study the data on his own.” Zhang said he thought the hardware might be useful if he was transferred to another area of the company, a request he had made earlier that year, the complaint says.

When Apple’s forensics team searched Zhang’s wife’s computer, they found secret proprietary material, including engineering schematics, technical reference manuals, and technical reports, the complaint alleges.

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FBI agents interviewed Zhang late last month after they searched his house. Shortly after, they learned that Zhang had purchased a last-minute ticket to China and apprehended him at the airport. Zhang was charged with theft trade secrets.

Apple’s self-driving car program is much more secretive than other autonomous vehicle companies such as Waymo and Uber, but across the industry the technology secrets behind the vehicles are considered more valuable than gold. Earlier this year, Waymo settled its lawsuit against Uber for $245 million after the company alleged its proprietary lidar tech—which acts as a self-driving car’s vision—had been stolen by a former employee. The lawsuit claimed that the employee used the information to form his own self-driving startup, Otto, which was later acquired by Uber.

Many Chinese companies have made their self-driving ambitions known, but Xmotors denies that it was involved in Zhang’s alleged theft of Apple’s technology. In a statement provided to the South China Morning Post, Xmotors said, “We were not involved in any form of the matter” and that it would “cooperate with the investigation.”