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

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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.

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