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Apple autonomous car engineer pleads guilty to stealing trade secrets

Top secret tech theft admission sealed into top secret plea deal

An ex-Apple engineer who worked on Titan – the company's "need to know basis" self-driving car project – yesterday admitted to stealing proprietary tech while he was working for the company.

Xiaolang Zhang accepted a plea deal, changing his plea to guilty to one count of theft of trade secrets at a recent hearing. His plea agreement will be filed under seal, according to the minutes [PDF], which were filed yesterday.

Zhang, a hardware engineer on the autonomous vehicle dev team, started work at the Apple unit in late 2015, working on the "Compute" section, where he designed and tested circuit boards to analyze sensor data being fed back from the car's systems. After he went on paternity leave, the complaint says, he returned from a trip to China during his family leave to tell his boss that his mother wasn't well and he planned to move to China to be closer to her.

The filing claims he said he planned to go work for Xiaopeng Motors, aka "XMotors", an intelligent electric vehicle company with headquarters in Guangzhou, China, as well as North American offices in Palo Alto, California.

His supervisor then pushed whatever button brings in a member of Apple's "New Product Security Division" and a representative "joined the meeting." After being stripped of all work devices – two iPhones and a Mac laptop – and having his network access privileges revoked, Zhang was walked off the campus.

An internal security team that Apple calls "New Product Security" then apparently called in the database security team, an Apple Global Security lawyer, and later, the FBI.

After another interview with both the FBI and Apple, and after handing in his wife's laptop for forensic examination, along with a Linux server and two circuit boards he'd "admitted to taking from Apple," the complaint says that FBI agents intercepted Zhang at the San Jose International Airport after he'd already passed through the security checkpoint.

Before accepting the deal, the engineer originally pleaded not guilty.

According to the original complaint [PDF], the FBI found engineering schematics, technical reference manuals, and technical reports identified as belonging to Apple, including, specifically, a "25-page pdf document containing electrical schematics for one of the circuit boards that form Apple's proprietary infrastructure technology for the Project."

Top secret

The complaint, for which a sealing order was originally requested, revealed the lengths to which Apple goes to protect its autonomous car dev work, including among other things, that only 2 percent – 2,700 out of 135,000 – of Apple's full-time employees had access to the secure databases hosting the autonomous car tech, and that those DBs have their own admins. It also revealed that Cupertino uses an internal software tool to manage requests for project disclosure and maintains a record of all disclosures.

Another individual who worked on Titan was arrested in 2019 for allegedly taking pictures and stealing information about the hardware. Jizhong Chen is currently out on bail and a trial date has not been set.

Apple reportedly brought ex-Lamborghini R&D man Luigi Taraborrelli onto the Titan team last month. Apple has reportedly merged staff from its 2019 acquisition of autonomous vehicle startup into the project.

According to the California DMV, Apple is currently testing vehicles (understood to be Lexus cars) fitted with its self-driving tech on the state's roads, but – crucially – only has permits to do so with a driver.

Only six companies, including Waymo and Baidu's Apollo Autonomous LLC, are currently testing driverless tech.

Zhang's sentencing hearing is scheduled for November 14. ®

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