A former Apple engineer was arrested as he was about to board a flight from San Jose to China Saturday, accused by United States prosecutors of stealing tech secrets from the firm with the plan of passing them along to a Chinese startup, the Washington Post reports. The FBI arrested Xiaolang Zhang as he was preparing to board a plane back to China, where he was going to work for a Chinese auto startup. Zhang also said he planned to work for XMotors, a Chinese autonomous and electric vehicle startup, which has offices in Silicon Valley.
Zhang was on his way to Hangzhou when he was charged with stealing autonomous driving trade secrets from Apple. Information is even kept from a majority of the company's employees.
Of course, not all of those 5,000 people are necessarily working on the project full time.
The entire project's existence was a secret until late 2016, when Apple wrote a letter to USA regulators asking them not to restrict testing of autonomous vehicles.
An Apple spokesperson 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".
In an interview with Apple's security team, Zhang admitted to taking both online data and hardware. A plea has not yet been filed.
Tamara Crepet, a lawyer provisionally appointed to represent Zhang, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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The fact that Apple provided this information to authorities as part of the complaint indicates that further technological details could come to light in court if the case goes ahead, marking a change in attitude for the tech giant which previously fought fiercely to keep details of its self-driving cars under wraps.
Surveillance footage and a review of Zhang's badge-swipe access also shows that the former employee entered Apple's autonomous vehicle labs the night of April 28 - while he was still on paternity leave - and left less than an hour later with a computer keyboard, some cables and a large box, the filing says.
Upon his return on April 30, Zhang told his immediate superior he was resigning to move back to China to be closer to mother who was in poor health.
Zhang took a trip to China in April of this year, following the birth of his child.
An internal investigation revealed that in the days before Zhang's resignation, his Apple network activity "increased exponentially", the complaint said.
Documents allegedly downloaded by Zhang included some on topics such as "prototypes".
A hardware engineer for Apple's autonomous vehicle development team, Zhang was granted access to confidential company databases, according to the complaint.