An ex-Apple employee recently tried to flee the US with an armful of self-driving car secrets, but was caught by the FBI in the nick of time. He’s now facing 10 years in prison and a $250000 fine.
Xiaolang Zhang got hired by Apple back in 2015 to work in its Compute Team for Project Titan, the internal name for the brand’s secret autonomous car project. He was granted broad access to a ton of secure and confidential data because of his position.
Only around 5000 employees had access to Apple’s self-driving car data, with Zhang among the 2700 core employees with access to even more restricted information. It was thus a bit worrying when he visited China in April 2018 and later told his supervisor that he was leaving the company and moving to China to work with a Chinese startup called XMotors.
Apple’s Investigation Into Self-Driving Car Theft
XMotors specializes in autonomous vehicle technology, which naturally rung alarm bells in Apple’s ranks. The brand’s New Product Security Team swung into action at this point, discovering that he had downloaded sensitive content such as prototypes and left the campus with a box of hardware.
Zhang even admitted to transferring secret information from his own device to his wife’s laptop. Apple promptly told the FBI after finding out that at least 60% of the data Zhang downloaded and AirDropped to his wife’s computer was highly problematic.
The FBI interviewed Zhang in June and got him to confess to taking Apple’s intellectual property. He later tried to escape the US and go to China on July 7, but got arrested at the airport. He’s now been charged with stealing trade secrets and faces 10 years in prison.
Google’s Waymo actually faced a similar situation a few years ago when one of its employees left the company to form his own self-driving startup. Uber later acquired the firm for its own autonomous car efforts.
Waymo accused the former worker of stealing confidential information and using it to help Uber. The case went to court, but got settled before a verdict could be reached. Apple has luckily managed to avoid all this drama.