This is becoming quite the trend…
Xiaolang Zhang, a former Apple employee, recently plead guilty in a San Jose court to stealing trade secrets about the Apple Car program. According to a report from Fortune, Zhang was apprehended at San Jose airport on his way to China. His intent was to go work for Guangzhou Xiaopeng Motors Technology, also called Xpeng, a Chinese EV startup financially backed by Amazon competitor Alibaba.
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This legal case does reveal the Apple Car project is still alive and well. Zhang worked on designing and testing circuit boards for the self-driving vehicle from December 2015 to May 2018. However, in April 2018 after returning from paternity leave, he asked for time off to take an extended trip to China to see his ailing mother. At the same time, the guy dropped the bomb on Apple that he planned on working for Xpeng, which of course didn’t sound super suspicious or anything.
Apple, which is notoriously secretive about product development, had its security team start digging into Zhang activities. They found the man transferred 24GB of “highly problematic” data to his wife’s laptop. Among that data was a 25-page document containing schematics of a circuit board to be used in the Apple Car.
When Zhang was arrested, he was found with circuit boards and a server he stole from the Apple Car lab, the crime captured on surveillance cameras.
This is far from the only case of corporate espionage involving a Chinese company, or even specifically from Apple. Back in January of 2019 NBC reported about another employee, also a Chinese citizen, stealing trade secrets from the Apple Car project. A third Apple employee, also a Chinese citizen, tried stealing trad secrets from the same project in July of 2018. Hopefully, this helps companies and executives in the West realize they need to better protect their trade secrets, particularly from China.
The Apple Car project has been through many ups and downs since it was first launched 8 years ago. For a time the word was that the Cupertino, California tech company had mothballed the program, only for it later to be confirmed Apple hadn’t given up on producing a self-driving vehicle for consumers.
Fortune says Zhang pled guilty to a single count of theft of trade secrets. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for November 14.
Sources: Fortune, NBC Bay Area