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DOJ charges former Apple engineer with theft of autonomous car tech for China

Weibao Wang worked as a software engineer at Apple from 2016 to 2018, a Justice Department indictment said.
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/ Source: CNBC.com

A former Apple software engineer was charged with stealing Apple’s autonomous technology for a Chinese self-driving car company, the Department of Justice announced Tuesday.

Weibao Wang worked as a software engineer at Apple from 2016 to 2018, a DOJ indictment said. Wang worked on Apple’s Annotation Team and was granted “broad access” to databases which the Justice Department said could only be accessed by 2,700 of Apple’s 135,000 employees.

Wang is the third former Apple employee to be accused of stealing autonomous trade secrets for China.

Wang has been charged with six separate counts involving the theft or attempted theft of Apple’s “entire autonomy source code,” tracking systems, behavior planning for autonomous systems, and descriptions of the hardware that was behind the systems.

Attendees wait for the start of an Apple Inc. event in Cupertino
Attendees wait for the start of an Apple Inc. event in Cupertino, Calif., on Sept. 12, 2018.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

A year into his employment, four months before he quit his job at Apple, Wang accepted a job at the U.S.-based subsidiary of an unnamed Chinese company that was developing autonomous driving technology and he began to siphon “large amounts” of sensitive commercial technology and source code, the indictment alleges.

In April 2017, only 5,000 of Apple’s 135,000 full-time employees had been informed about the project, the DOJ indictment alleges, or around 4% of the company. An even smaller segment, around 2%, had access to “one or more” of the databases Wang accessed, the indictment continues.

Law enforcement executed a search of Wang’s home in California on June 27, 2018, where they found large quantities of stolen, confidential, and proprietary data, the indictment alleges. Wang was able to flee the country even after law enforcement executed the search, despite promising that he wouldn’t.

Wang boarded a flight to Guangzhou, China, from San Francisco International Airport. In a press conference, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Ismail Ramsey said Wang is in China and would face 10 years in prison for each count if extradited and convicted.

The charges were announced as part of a sweeping enforcement action led by the Disruptive Technology Strike Force. Four other cases were unveiled across the United States, involving criminal behavior to supply Iranian forces with sensitive ballistic technology, Russian intelligence and research units with quantum technology, and sanctions-violating exports.

The allegations against Wang come after another Apple employee, Xiaolang Zhang, pleaded guilty in San Jose federal court to a similar theft involving trade secrets in Apple’s car division.

Like Wang, Zhang had planned to flee to China. Both Zhang and Wang were working at Apple’s autonomous division at the same time, and both left their employment at Apple in 2018.

Another employee, Jizhong Chen, was also facing federal charges over his alleged 2019 theft of sensitive information. Chen also attempted to flee to China, according to court documents. Chen’s case is proceeding in California federal court.

Apple declined to comment on the case.