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Former Apple Engineer Accused of Stealing Self-Driving Technology for Chinese Company
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Self driving car

Summary: An ex-Apple engineer is accused of downloading information from Apple’s self-driving technology before he quit to go work for a Chinese company.

A former Apple Inc. employee was arrested July 7 trying to board a flight to China with a laptop of illegally downloaded information. Zhang Xiaolang is accused by U.S. prosecutors of stealing driverless car secrets to give to a Chinese startup, according to Bloomberg.


Zhang had just passed through security at the San Jose International Airport where he was intending to catch a flight to China. He was going to work for the Guangzhou-based Xiaopeng Motors. He left Apple in April but downloaded files of proprietary information before he left, according to the criminal complaint.

Zhang was a hardware engineer for the autonomous vehicle development team allowing him to have access to confidential company databases. He took paternity leave in April and then would be moving back to China to work at Xmotors, Zhang told Apple. Before his resignation, he was visiting the office and showing an increase in network activity which concerned Apple.

During a Federal Bureau of Investigation interview, Zhang admitted to downloading Apple driverless technology onto his wife’s laptop so he could have continued access to them.

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In response to this event and other similar events, the U.S. Treasury Department plans introduce an emergency law which would increase scrutiny on Chinese investments to sensitive U.S. industries. This includes cracking down on investments to new-energy vehicles, robotics and aerospace, all of which the government views as sources of threat to economic and national security.

The self-driving car project Apple is tackling competes with the Detroit auto industry and Tesla Inc. The plan to build a self-driving car was approved in 2015 and resulted in Apple hiring over 1,000 engineers. In 2016, Apple scaled back their plan to have a physical car built and focused instead on the self-driving software and sensor technology. Of Apple’s 135,000 full-time employees, around 5,000 are disclosed on the self-driving car project. Of those, over half have access to the databases of information.

Apple has put cars out on the roads already with the software but is still in the testing phase to determine how reliable the software is. They will use the software on special Volkswagen vans that transport employees between buildings. They have not made any announcement into whether they will release the technology to consumers.

Most of Zhang’s network activity “consisted of both bulk searches and targeted downloading copious pages of information from the various confidential database applications.” Prosecutors allege that he downloaded engineering schematics, technical manuals, and more.

Apple spokesman Tom Neumayr said, “Apple takes confidentiality and the protection of our intellectual property very seriously. We’re working with authorities on this matter and will do everything possible to make sure this individual and any other individuals involved are held accountable for their actions.”

Are you surprised that Apple did not have greater security measures to ensure their technology is not stolen? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

To learn more about the self-driving car industry, read these articles:




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