A former Apple hardware engineer, who worked on the company’s “Project Titan” autonomous vehicle project, was arrested at the airport as he attempted to board a flight for China with company secrets.
Xiaolang Zhang, who recently left Apple, was picked up Saturday at the San Jose International Airport as he attempted to board a flight to Beijing, on his way to Jangzhou, China. He was charged on Monday with stealing trade secrets for the Cupertino firm.
Zhang, who now claims to be working for XMotors in Mountain View, came to Apple in December 2015 to work as a hardware engineer on a team trying to develop autonomous cars, authorities said. Apple has kept that research and development a closely guarded secret, and authorities said Zhang was granted broad access to confidential internal databases.
Zhang is facing federal charges of theft of trade secrets, which carries a recommended penalty of 10 years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, a $100 special assessment and three years of supervised release.
Zhang worked on Apple’s “Project Titan” self-driving car initiative. As a member of the Compute Team, he was tasked with designing and testing circuit boards to analyze data from various vehicle sensors. This offered him access to trade secrets and confidential intellectual property.
Zhang left Apple on paternity leave in April and used the time to visit his family in China. When he returned, he told supervisors he would be leaving, and would be moving to Guangzhou to tend to his ill mother. He also informed the company that he would be joining a Chinese electric car startup called XMotors.
Zhang turned in his company-issued devices, and the devices showed an unusual amount of download activity, leading the company to believe he might have illegally downloaded sensitive information.
Security camera footage and security badge swipe data also indicate Zhang visited company labs during his leave. While he initially denied it, he finally admitted he had visited Apple’s hardware labs and had stolen items, including two circuit boards and a Linux server.
The FBI searched Zhang’s residence, and interviewed him. During the interview, he he admitted to taking files, AirDropping some of the files on to his wife’s personal computer.