Ex-Apple engineer pleads not guilty to stealing autonomous car trade secrets

Apple companies header
Josh Edelson/Getty Images

Apple has pressed charges against Xiaolang Zhang, one of its former hardware engineers, after he admitted to downloading trade secrets and intellectual property from the firm’s secretive autonomous car division. Zhang told investigators he downloaded the files and AirDropped them onto his wife’s personal laptop in order to keep accessing them after leaving the company but he didn’t say why. Apple claims he wanted to provide them to a Chinese startup; he pleaded not guilty in court and is working on posting his $300,000 bail.

Zhang worked on circuit boards for Apple’s autonomous car division so he had access to highly confidential information including tech bulletins, reports, and blueprints. A criminal complaint, filed by federal prosecutors, explains he announced his resignation in April and said he planned to move back to China to take care of his sick mother, according to The Mercury News. He also told his supervisors he had accepted a position at a 4-year-old automaker called Xiaopeng Motors. The company remains relatively obscure outside of China but it’s financially backed by well-known names like Alibaba and Foxconn. It told investigators it has uncovered no evidence of sensitive information sent by Zhang.

Apple’s security officials asked Zhang to turn in his two work-issued iPhones and his MacBook after he announced his resignation. Apple then launched an investigation into his activities online and realized he had downloaded an immense amount of data in the days leading up to his resignation. Suspicious, they examined footage from security cameras and, according to court documents obtained by The Verge, saw him leaving his lab with a large box containing circuit boards and a Linux server, cables, and a keyboard on April 28.

The complaint notes investigators found most of Zhang’s network activity “consisted of both bulk searches and targeted downloading [of] copious pages of information from the various confidential database applications.” Summoned back to Apple’s Cupertino, California, headquarters, Zhang quickly admitted to downloading the files and transferring them to his wife’s laptop but denied wrongdoing. Investigators call a full 60 percent of the data stored on the computer “highly problematic.” It includes information about topics such as prototypes, power requirements, battery systems, and drivetrain suspension mounts.

Zhang voluntarily left his position at Apple on May 5, and the FBI searched his home on June 27. What they found, if anything, hasn’t been made public yet. Federal agents arrested Zhang on July 7 as he went through a security checkpoint at the San Jose airport. Officials say he had recently purchased tickets to Hangzhou, China, via Beijing. If found guilty, he’ll face up to 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine, according to Bloomberg.

Ridesharing giant Uber recently settled a similar case for $245 million. In 2017, Waymo filed a lawsuit against Uber claiming ex-engineer Anthony Levandowski downloaded confidential files about autonomous car technology before leaving the company to establish a firm named Otto. Uber quickly purchased Otto and, according to Waymo’s lawyers, received the valuable files stolen by Levandowski as part of the deal. When it announced the settlement, Uber pledged to learn from past mistakes but never admitted wrongdoing.

Update: Added not guilty plea from Zhang.

Emerging Tech

How facial recognition is changing life as we know it – for better or worse

From the police to ad agencies, everyone is investing in state-of-the-art facial recognition technology. What does all of this mean for ordinary citizens? Digital Trends took a look.
Movies & TV

Prime-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Gaming

Here's where Xur is and what he has for wares this week in Destiny 2: Forsaken

The weekly vendor in Destiny 2: Forsaken always brings Exotic weapons and armor, some of the toughest loot to find in the game. Here's everything you need to know to track down Xur: Where he is, when he shows up, and what he's stocking.
Home Theater

Requiem for Jaime: Game of Thrones’ most fascinating Lannister deserved better

In the fifth episode of Game of Thrones' final season, characters made some puzzling decisions, none more so than Jaime Lannister. The Kingslayer was, for a time, one of the show's most complex characters, and he deserved better.
Cars

Tesla’s recent Model S fires prompt the company to update its battery software

Following three Model S incidents where the cars caught fire while parked, Tesla has started pushing out an update for Model S and Model X batteries to improve their safety. The company is still investigating the cause of the fires.
Cars

The 2020 Hyundai Elantra keeps an eye on the road even if you’re not looking

Hyundai has again updated the Elantra, one of its most popular and most affordable models. For the 2020 model year, the Elantra receives standard driving aids like lane-keeping assist and forward collision warning.
Cars

Six advanced tech features that make off-road driving easy

It wasn’t too long ago that driving off-road required serious skills and a lot of equipment. Thanks to technology, any family crossover SUV can hit the trail today and have a good chance of coming back in one piece.
Product Review

The 2019 Ford Mustang GT 350 finally has the grip to (almost) tame its V8

Four years after its debut, the standard GT350 finally gets the suspension and tire package it always needed. While evolutionary rather than revolutionary, Ford’s update takes the Shelby’s track prowess and fun factor to a new level.
Cars

Lamborghini’s ST-X will likely spawn a super-Urus with the soul of a race car

Lamborghini is taking the Urus racing in 2020. The racing version will be lighter than the production model it's based on, and we expect it will be a good deal quicker. It is also trickling into a performance version of the Urus.
Cars

Volvo’s new app walks you through what to do after an accident

Volvo's Accident Advisor sends information on what to do after an accident directly to a driver's smartphone. Drivers can also use it to notify their insurance companies and find a repair shop.
Cars

Aston Martin will revive James Bond’s DB5 at a price only Goldfinger can afford

Aston Martin will build 25 new versions of the DB5 from the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, complete with gadgets. These "continuation cars" will cost millions of dollars, but won't be road legal.
Cars

Hyundai wants to make sure you’re seeing the outside world, not inhaling it

Hyundai is developing an intelligent air purification system for its cars that continuously monitors the quality of the air inside the cabin, and cleans it when it detects the presence of harmful particulates.
Cars

Nissan claims its upgraded ProPilot system enables hands-off highway driving

Nissan is launching a new version of its ProPilot Assist system that's much smarter than the current version. It can handle acceleration, braking, and steering on highways, while using a camera to ensure the driver doesn't fall asleep.
Product Review

Mercedes-Benz fires its first salvo in the luxury electrification war

The EQC is Mercedes-Benz's answer to the Tesla threat, bringing performance, tech features, and luxury to the growing electric SUV segment. We headed to Norway, the electric car capital of the world, to get a taste of it.