Ex-Apple Worker Charged in Scheme to Take Self-Driving Secrets to China

(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – A former Apple employee faces 10 years in prison on charges he stole self-driving car technology from his employer to benefit a Chinese company.

Federal agents arrested Xiaolang Zhang, 33, at Mineta San Jose International Airport on July 7, just as he was about to board a plane for China. He was indicted on one count of theft of trade secrets on July 12 and arraigned Monday. He pleaded not guilty.

According to court documents, Zhang started working for Apple in December 2015 on a self-driving car technology project. On April 30, Zhang told a supervisor that he was leaving Apple so he could return to China to be closer to his mother, who he said was “in poor health.” Zhang also revealed that he was planning to work for X-Motors, a Chinese start-up company focused on autonomous vehicles.

A supervisor believed Zhang had been “evasive during their meeting,” and asked for an Apple security team to retrieve his work laptop and iPhones. Zhang’s network access and privileges were immediately revoked, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit.

An Apple security team found in the few days before Zhang resigned, he accessed an Apple database and downloaded copious pages of trade secret information, including prototype designs and specifications.

A security camera also recorded Zhang taking a computer keyboard, cables, and other hardware in a box at around 9:14 p.m. on the evening of Saturday, April 28, according to the affidavit.

When Zhang was called back to Apple for an exit interview, employees confronted him about his recent activity. Zhang initially denied having taken hardware from the company, but later acknowledged doing so because he thought it might benefit him in a new position he was previously pursuing with Apple, prosecutors said.

He also said he downloaded data in the days before he resigned because “he wanted to study that data on his own.” Zhang also acknowledged pursuing a job with X-Motors while he was still employed with Apple, according to the affidavit.

One of the files Zhang took was a 25-page document with detailed schematics for a circuit board designed for use in the critical infrastructure of an autonomous vehicle, according to court documents.

On July 7, FBI agents learned Zhang had purchased a last-minute, round-trip ticket to Beijing with a final destination of Hangzhou, China. He was arrested at airport before he boarded the plane.

Zhang posted a $300,000 bond and was released on July 10, subject to GPS monitoring. He is not yet represented by counsel.

If convicted, Zhang faces a maximum 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine.

An Apple representative did not immediately return an email seeking comment on the indictment.

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