Ex-Apple Employee Admits to Trade Secrets Theft

In August 2022, a former Apple Inc employee pleaded guilty to trade secret theft. The employee pleaded guilty to criminal charges that he stole proprietary information from the company while preparing to go work for a Chinese startup company that makes electric cars with autonomous driving features.

The employee named Zhang Xiaolang, who was arrested at the San Jose international airport after he passed through a security checkpoint in July 2018 on his way to catch a one-way flight to China, admitted to a single count of trade-secret theft at a hearing in federal court in San Jose, California.

US prosecutors accused him of downloading a 25-page Apple document containing detailed drawings of a circuit board designed to be used in Apple’s autonomous vehicle, to his wife’s computer that included schematic drawings of a circuit board design for a portion of an autonomous vehicle.

U.S. federal prosecutors have alleged that he downloaded the plan for a circuit board for Apple’s self-driving after disclosing his intentions to work for a Chinese self-driving car startup and booking a last-minute flight to China.

A judge ordered his plea agreement to be filed under seal from public view and set Zhang’s sentencing. Trade secret theft carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In April of that year, he told Apple that he was resigning to be closer to his ill mother in China. Apple later learned that the former employee had gone on to work for Xpeng, an electric vehicle upstart in China. On the day of Zhang’s planned return to China, federal agents intercepted and arrested him.

Xpeng, the Chinese electric car maker Zhang joined after leaving Apple in 2018. It was said by the Chinese company that the company had no dispute with Apple over the issue and that it was not involved in the case in any form.

Apple hired him in 2015 to work as a hardware engineer in its autonomous car project, which is yet to generate a commercial product.

In January 2019, federal prosecutors charged another Apple employee named Jizhong Chen, with stealing proprietary information from the company’s self-driving car project while applying to work for a Chinese rival.

A search of a hard drive owned by Chen found thousands of sensitive documents along with 100 photos taken inside the company’s self-driving facility, as per an FBI affidavit. The employee told Apple he planned to travel to China to visit his ill father, but he was arrested before he could board his direct flight.

However, Chen has pleaded not guilty and the case is still pending.

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