Chinese-Born Ex-Apple Engineer Sentenced to 4 Months for Stealing Trade Secrets

Zhang Xiaolang is charged with stealing self-driving car technology from Apple.

A former Apple Inc. engineer has been sentenced by a California federal judge to 120 days in prison for stealing self-driving car technology before attempting to flee to China.

On Feb. 13, U.S. District Judge Edward Davila of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California handed down the final decision, recommending that Zhang Xiaolang serve his jail term in a “minimum-security camp-type facility as close as possible to San Jose, California,” where his family lives. Further, “the Court finds that family visitation enhances rehabilitation.”

The judge also proposed allowing Mr. Zhang to teach mathematics in prison.

Mr. Zhang pleaded guilty in August 2022 in federal court in San Jose to one count of trade secret theft.

The Chinese-born permanent U.S. resident, who worked as a hardware engineer for Apple between 2015 and 2018, was accused by U.S. prosecutors of downloading a 25-page blueprint that included schematic drawings of a circuit board for the self-driving car, despite knowing such schematics are typically deemed top trade secrets in the electronics industry, according to a 2018 criminal complaint filed in federal court.

Before boarding a flight to China with a last-minute-purchased ticket, Mr. Zhang was arrested at the San Jose International Airport on July 7, 2018. At the time, Mr. Zhang also worked for a Chinese electric vehicle (EV) company focused on developing autonomous driving systems. He was released on bail after pleading not guilty at the time.Mr. Zhang worked on Apple’s self-driving car program, which involved designing and testing circuit boards to analyze sensor data. ​​According to the complaint, about 5,000 of Apple’s 135,000 employees were allowed to learn about the project, but only 2,700 had access to secret databases, including Mr. Zhang.

In April 2018, Mr. Zhang took a month-long paternity leave and traveled to China.

Shortly after returning to the United States, Mr. Zhang told his supervisor that he wanted to resign to spend time with his ailing mother in China. During the meeting, he revealed he intended to work for a Chinese rival, XPeng Motors.

Founded in 2014, XPeng specializes in intelligence vehicles and is headquartered in the southern city of Guangzhou. According to the complaint, the Chinese automaker has a division in Silicon Valley.

After hearing of Mr. Zhang’s intention, Apple terminated his system access and began a forensic analysis of his company devices, the complaint said. An internal investigation found Mr. Zhang’s network activity “increased exponentially compared to the prior two years of his employment” in the days before his resignation. Most of these activities were “bulk searches and targeted downloading [of] copious pages of information” from the company’s confidential database, the FBI complaint stated.

CCTV footage shows Mr. Zhang entered Apple’s autonomous vehicle lab on April 28, 2018. When he left the building, he carried a computer keyboard, some cables, and a large box, the complaint said.

With that evidence, Apple called back Mr. Zhang for a second meeting on May 2, 2018.

Mr. Zhang admitted that he pursued a job at the Chinese EV startup while still working for Apple, but he denied entering the autonomous vehicle lab. After being confronted with evidence, Mr. Zhang later admitted that he took two circuit boards and a Linux server from the lab, according to the complaint. He also revealed that he transferred Apple’s data to his wife’s laptop using AirDrop, a wireless file-sharing feature on Apple’s devices.

Apple’s digital forensic teams conducted a review of his wife’s laptop and discovered that “approximately 60 percent of the data” was “highly problematic,” the complaint stated.

On May 5, 2018, Mr. Zhang was “voluntarily terminated from Apple” and worked for XPeng at its California office, according to the complaint.

XPeng later wrote on China’s social media platform Weibo that the company had no dispute with Apple over the issue and wasn’t involved in Mr. Zhang’s case in any form.

Another former Apple employee, Chen Jizhong, is also facing similar charges. The U.S. citizen allegedly took more than 2,000 files from Apple’s electric car division before being arrested in 2019 ahead of his trip to China, prosecutors said. Mr. Chen has pleaded not guilty, and the case is still pending.

In May 2023, the U.S. government announced a third case involving a former Apple engineer who allegedly stole autonomous driving technology from the tech giant while secretly working for a Chinese company.

Wang Weibao, a software engineer at Apple from 2016 to 2018, faces six counts of theft or attempted theft of trade secrets; each count carries up to 10 years in prison if extradited and convicted. Mr. Wang fled to China shortly after the U.S. law enforcement searched his residence in 2018.

The U.S. prosecutor didn’t identify which Chinese company Mr. Wang works for. Still, media reports indicated that he was employed at an EV startup owned by the country’s homegrown tech giant Baidu.

“Innovation is alive and well in Silicon Valley—indeed, throughout the Northern District of California,” U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Ismail Ramsey said at the time. “Unfortunately, there will always be some who cheat the system by stealing and profiting from the fruits of others’ labor. The Wang prosecution is but one example.”

Rita Li contributed to this report. 

 

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