A former Apple engineer this week entered a plea of not guilty on a single-count federal charge related to stealing trade secrets, stemming from his brief tenure working as an engineer on the Cupertino-company’s Project Titan self-driving car team.
Xiaolang Zhang — whose LinkedIn profile still shows his “current role” as a Hardware System Engineer working on “high-performance computing HW systems” at Apple — was reportedly confronted last Saturday by FBI agents at the San Jose International Airport where he was attempting to board a flight to Beijing, China.
He was arrested on the spot and charged with one count of stealing trade secrets from the California company and allegedly tried to flee the country and return to China with them.
According to court documents uploaded to Scribd, Zhang worked on Apple’s self-driving car as a member of the “Compute Team” — a highly-trained group of engineers tasked with “designing and testing circuit boards to analyze data ingested by various vehicle sensors.”
The role, prosecutors portend, ultimately provided Zhang with broad and sweeping access to Apple’s databases containing “trade secrets and sensitive intellectual property.”
Back in April of this year, meanwhile, Zhang took a break from his post at Apple to spend time with his family back in China; although, upon returning to the U.S., he immediately informed his superiors at Apple that he’d be leaving the company for good, citing plans to return with his family in Guangzhou province.
It was at this time, court documents reveal, when Zhang unwittingly informed his supervisor that he’d be joining Chinese electric car startup, XMotors, upon his return home.
It wasn’t until he went to turn in his company-issued devices, however, that Apple noticed “unusual download activity” on Zhang’s accounts, prompting the company to believe he may have illegally downloaded information. Additionally, documents revealed that security camera data placed Zhang on Apple’s property when he was supposedly ‘visiting family in China.’
When confronted with the allegations, Zhang initially denied everything — though he ultimately caved under pressure, admitting he was inside Apple’s hardware engineering labs and had taken items including two circuit boards and a linux server.
Upon his arrest, Zhang further admitted to FBI agents interviewing him that he’d “taken files” — a process reportedly involving the air-dropping of documents to his wife’s personal computer.
Zhang is now facing federal charges including one count of Theft of Trade Secrets, which carries a recommended penalty of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, a $100 special assessment and an additional three-years of supervised release.
A Plea for Mercy
On Monday, Zhang entered a plea of not guilty after having been indicted by prosecutors on the single charge. The official indictment, filed last week with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, specifically asserts that Zhang stole a 25-page document containing detailed schematics of a circuit board designed for use in an autonomous vehicle.
Reuters reports that Zhang was initially appointed a public defender, however he arrived at court on Monday represented by a personal attorney, Daniel Olmos, along with his Mandarin-Chinese language interpreter.