31 January 2019

Apple employee accused of stealing self-driving car trade secrets

The FBI has accused an Apple employee of attempting to steal trade secrets related to the company’s self-driving car project.

The news comes after another Apple employee was accused of stealing trade secrets about the project in July 2018.

In a criminal complaint filed at the US District Court for the Northern District of California on January 22, Adelaida Hernandez, special agent for the FBI, said the bureau had “probable cause to believe” that Jizhong Chen had committed the crime of trade secrets theft.

Just 11 days before the filing, on January 11, another Apple employee (who was not named) reported that they saw Chen taking “suspicious, wide-angled” photographs within the Apple workspace.

Apple hired Chen in June 2018 to work on its secretive self-driving car project. On June 13, he attended training which covered the importance of keeping the nature of the project secret.

After receiving the reports from the unnamed employee on January 11, Apple’s investigation team spoke to Chen about the allegations.

The filing said Chen admitted to taking the pictures, as well as backing up his Apple work computer to a personally-owned hard drive. In total, more than 2,000 files containing confidential information were duplicated.

The filing said Chen’s conducting of the backup was a violation of Apple’s policy.

In his defence, Chen said he had made the copies to “support” his job applications, as he was applying for jobs within Apple.

But, Apple learned that Chen had applied for two external jobs, the filing said. One of these was at a China-based autonomous vehicle company, which Apple said is a direct competitor.

Consequently, Apple suspended Chen on January 11. According to the complaint, if the files had been disclosed to third parties, it could have been “enormously damaging” for Apple.

The FBI alleged that Chen used his employment “working on a highly confidential programme” to obtain IP containing trade secrets from Apple.

According to CNET, if convicted, Chen faces a maximum prison sentence of ten years and a maximum fine of $250,000.

This is the second time an Apple employee working on the self-driving car project has been accused of stealing trade secrets.

In July 2018, the FBI filed criminal charges against Xiaolang Zhang, who worked at Apple for three years before announcing his return to China to work for an autonomous vehicle startup.

According to the complaint in Zhang’s case, he not only took documents from the company but a box of hardware too.

Zhang was arrested in July while trying to board a flight to China.

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