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

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation charged former Apple employee Xiaolang Zhang with stealing trade secrets. Zhang was hired back in December of 2015 by Apple to work on Project Titan, focusing mainly on software and hardware for autonomous vehicles.

As noted by MacRumors, the charge was found in documents filed with the Northern District Court of California. Zhang’s duties were to design and test circuit boards that were capable of analyzing sensor data.

He was provided with “broad access to secure and confidential internal databases” due to his position, which contained trade secrets and intellectual property for the autonomous driving project that he ultimately ended up stealing.

Fast forward a couple of years and in April of 2018, Zhang took family leave after the birth of his child, and visited China during this time. Shortly after, he told his supervisor at Apple that he was leaving the company and moved to China to work for XMotors, a Chinese-based startup that is also focusing on autonomous tech for cars.

Following that, his supervisor at Apple felt like he had “been evasive” during his final meeting. This lead Apple’s New Product Security Team to begin an investigation into his network activity and Apple devices, which were surrendered when he left the company.

Apple noticed Zhang’s network activity “Increased exponentially” compared to prior years working at Apple. He had accessed data regarding “prototypes and prototype requirements, which the court documents specify as power requirements, low voltage requirements, battery system, and drivetrain suspension mounts,” the report said.

Security footage at Apple indicated that Zhang had visited the campus on Saturday, April 28, and entered Apple’s autonomous vehicle software and hardware labs. Upon looking at time stamps, this visit coincided with data download times, and Zhang left with a box of hardware.

In a second interview with Apple’s security team, Zhang admitted to taking both online data and hardware (a Linux server and circuit boards) from Apple during his paternity leave. He also admitted to AirDropping sensitive content from his own device to his wife’s laptop.

All evidence was forwarded to the FBI after Apple’s Digital Forensic Investigations team discovered that at least 60% of the downloaded data that was transferred over to his wife’s computer was “highly problematic.” The report says that the FBI describes the information as “largely technical in nature, including engineering schematics, technical reference manuals, and technical reports.”

Zhang was required to sign an Intellectual Property Agreement and attended mandatory in-person secrecy training sessions when he was hired. Obviously, he’s now violated that agreement. After being interviewed by the FBI in late June, Zhang admitted to stealing the information and was arrested on July 7 for attempting to leave to China.

Zhang is now facing up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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