Imagine being an engineer at Apple, one of the most coveted positions in tech. On top of it, you work in the ultra-secret autonomous car division. And you blow it all by leaving for a startup in China and stealing Apple’s trade secrets on the way out the door. That’s what authorities believe one man did this past weekend, and now he’s been slapped with federal charges.
According to the Mercury News, Xiaolang Zhang was charged on Monday in the U.S. District Court of Northern California. He’s accused of attempting to transfer Apple’s trade secrets to his new employer, XMotors, a Chinese startup that’s working on electric and driverless vehicles. Zhang was arrested on Saturday as he was attempting to board a plane to Beijing.
Aside from the corporate intrigue at play here, Zhang’s case is noteworthy because Apple doesn’t really talk about what it’s doing with driverless cars. At this point, it might just be working on an operating system for cars rather than a full-blown driverless car—who knows? Apparently, Zhang knows.
The criminal complaint doesn’t appear to be online yet, but Mercury News reports that it alleges Zhang started at Apple in 2015 as a hardware engineer and was “granted broad access to confidential internal databases.” He went on paternity leave in April and when he returned he reportedly informed higher-ups that he was going back to China to care for his sick mother. But he told his supervisor that he would be joining XMotors. After turning in his company-issued phones and laptop, Apple reportedly reviewed his download activity and found that he’d been collecting confidential data at a suspicious rate.
Zhang also reportedly admitted to Apple that he entered the software and hardware labs while he was supposed to be on paternity leave and that he transferred confidential documents to his wife’s computer. When interviewed by investigators on June 27, he confessed to taking documents from Apple, according to Mercury News.
XMotors is relatively unknown. It claims to have raised money from Alibaba, Foxconn, and IDG Capital. It showed off an electric vehicle at CES this year that was scheduled to go on sale this past spring but appears to have missed that launch date. The company’s website is just a splash page with the slogan, “Singularity Imminent.”
We asked Apple for comment on the case but didn’t receive an immediate reply. A spokesperson told Mercury News, “We’re working with authorities on this matter and will do everything possible to make sure this individual and other individuals involved are held accountable for their actions.” The statement did not include the words “driverless car.”