Autonomous Vehicles

Apple worker charged with stealing self-driving-car secrets for China

This is the second such case within a year.

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Apple's self-driving efforts have been largely shrouded in secrecy, and now the US government has brought charges against an Apple employee for allegedly looking behind that curtain with nefarious intent.

The US has charged Jizhong Chen with theft of trade secrets. According to the complaint, which was filed in federal court in San Francisco last week, an unnamed Apple employee discovered Chen taking "wide-angled photographs" of Apple's top-secret work. Furthermore, it said, Chen admitted to backing up his Apple-supplied work computer onto a personal hard drive, which is a big no-no per Apple's security policy.

During Apple's search of Chen's personal electronics, which Chen reportedly consented to, the complaint says Apple found "over 2,000 files containing confidential and proprietary Apple material, including manuals, schematics and diagrams." There were also photographs of computer screens. The complaint says it was then discovered that Chen, who said the backups were to support internal job applications, also applied to a Chinese autonomous-vehicle firm in direct competition with Apple. Chen was hired at Apple in 2018.

Apple is running one of the most secretive autonomy projects of any tech company.

NurPhoto/Getty Images

If convicted, Chen faces a maximum prison sentence of 10 years and a maximum fine of $250,000. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did the law firm representing Chen.

This is the second such case to appear before the court within a year. Last July, the US government filed a similar set of charges against Xiaolang Zhang, who worked for Apple for three years before announcing his intent to return to China to work for an autonomous vehicle startup. According to that complaint, Zhang not only took documents from the company, he took a box of hardware, too. He pleaded not guilty.

Originally, Apple had grand plans to construct an entire autonomous vehicle on its own. However, according to reports, Apple eventually scaled back its idea and settled on building just the software and hardware to enable autonomy instead, intending to sell that platform to interested parties. The complaint filed against Chen makes note that Apple's self-driving project currently involves some 1,200 employees.

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