FBI Charges Former Apple Employee With Theft of Trade Secrets Related to Autonomous Car Project

BY Evan Selleck

Published 10 Jul 2018

Apple Australia

Apple’s Project Titan used to be the talk of the town not too long ago, but it has since died down out of the rumor mill’s routine.

But that doesn’t mean that the project is dead, or that Apple’s inner-workings don’t still have information and more pertaining to the project at hand. One former Apple employee is currently in hot water over some of that content, especially in light of allegedly not only bringing it out of Apple’s walls, but handing it over to a potentially competing company.

The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is officially bringing charges against one former Apple employee named Xiaolang Zhang, with the charges being the theft of trade secrets. The documentation was filed with the Northern District Court of California. Zhang worked with Apple since he was hired on with the company back in 2015, and, since then, has been working with Project Titan. Zhang was developing hardware and software to be used in autonomous vehicles.

Zhang’s expertise was being used with the Compute Team, designing circuit boards to analyze sensor data. The position he held within the company allowed him access to “broad access to secure and confidential internal databases”, which contained not only trade secrets but also intellectual property pertaining to Apple’s autonomous vehicle efforts.

Zhang took a trip to China in April of this year, following the birth of his child. When he returned, Zhang informed his supervisor that he was leaving Apple and was going to move to China, where he would be working with a company called XMotors. That company is a startup based out of China that is also working on autonomous vehicles.

According to the supervisor, Zhang had “been evasive” during the meeting between the two, and, as such, decided to contact Apple’s New Product Security Team, which launched an internal investigation. Zhang’s Apple devices were taken when he resigned, and his network activity was analyzed in detail.

That analysis revealed that Zhang’s network activity “increased exponentially” near the time he decided to leave the company, compared to the two years prior. During that time, Zhang accessed a variety of content related to the Project Titan, including prototypes and those prototype requirements. There is also security footage that shows Zhang visited the Apple campus in late April, accessing both hardware and software laboratories in that visit.

Apple shared their evidence with the FBI, and, as such, the bureau has leveled charges against Zhang. If those charges lead to a ruling against Zhang, he could face up to 10 years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.

Our Take

At one point, the expectations for Project Titan were pretty high, with rumors suggesting the company’s efforts were coming along faster than anyone might expect. However, that didn’t pan out, and while Apple is currently in the process of testing and developing self-driving shuttles, the main focus for the company these days seems to be the software that will be available in self-driving vehicles some day in the future. This is Apple we’re talking about, so keeping those secrets and intellectual properties under lock-and-key is crucial. Zhang will likely get the full sentencing, considering the evidence against him.

[via The Mercury News]