Ex-Apple employee charged with stealing secret self-driving car tech

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Thieves may know more about Apple’s enigmatic plans to develop self-driving technology for cars than members of the general public. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested one of the company’s former employees after finding evidence that he stole confidential information and tried to leave the United States with it. The arrest came less than six months after Apple pressed similar charges against another former employee.

Federal agents arrested Jizhong Chen, who worked as a hardware development engineer for Apple’s autonomous car project, a day before he was scheduled to board a flight to his home country of China. NBC Bay Area reported his coworkers became suspicious when they spotted him taking wide-angle photographs in what is described as a sensitive work space. Confronted with the allegations, he allowed members of Apple’s security team to search his personal computer. They found thousands of confidential files including various operating manuals and diagrams, plus hundreds of photographs taken inside the Apple campus.

The complaint against Chen explains two of the photos led to instant criminal charges. The first showed details of a wiring harness used in an autonomous car. The second explained how the different sensors in a self-driving vehicle work together.

Chen told investigators he backed up files on his computer as an “insurance policy” in case Apple terminated his contract, according to CNBC. He was a core member of Project Titan, and there is no indication he was affected by the recent round of layoffs, but he had been placed on Apple’s Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) in December 2018, meaning he was no longer an employee in good standing and risked losing his job. Apple stressed Chen started copying files before it placed him on a PIP; he began doing so a few weeks after starting work in June 2018, according to The Verge.

Copying work files on a personal device is a serious violation of Apple’s policies regardless of the reason behind the action, and the information he backed up would be “enormously damaging” if it landed in the hands of a competitor, CNN reported. The company’s investigation revealed Chen applied for two jobs in China, including one at an unnamed company that’s one of its direct rivals.

Chen posted $100,000 bail and surrendered his passport. He is awaiting trial. He faces up to 10 years in jail and a $250,000 fine if he’s found guilty.

Xiaolang Zhang, an engineer arrested in July 2018, separately pleaded not guilty to charges brought against him. This story is developing, and it’s unclear whether the two cases are related, or if they’re separate incidents of alleged intellectual property theft.

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