The Federal Bureau of Investigation accused an Apple employee, who is a Chinese citizen, of attempting to steal trade secrets related to the company’s autonomous car project, according to a charging document that was unsealed on Wednesday. It’s the second time the FBI has charged an Apple employee for trying to steal intellectual property related to the project in the last seven months. The news was first reported by NBC’s Bay Area affiliate.
The new charge comes at a time of high tension between the United States and China. The two countries are locked in a trade war, and various US government agencies have accused China of engaging in multiple schemes — some dating back decades — to steal intellectual property from leading technology companies.
Jizhong Chen, a Chinese national, was charged with theft of trade secrets based on actions that allegedly date back to when he was hired last summer as a hardware developer. He was one of 5,000 Apple employees who was looped in on the company’s self-driving car effort, known as “Project Titan,” which has been operating in secret for years. (The company also recently laid off about 200 employees from the project.) Furthermore, he was also one of 1,200 “core” employees who directly work on the project. Chen was on the electrical engineering team, according to the charging document.
After fellow employees spotted him taking photographs of the workspace where the project takes place, the FBI says Chen told Apple’s global security team that he backed up his work computer to a personal hard drive and computer.
Apple’s team found Chen had “over two thousand files containing confidential and proprietary Apple material, including manuals, schematics, and diagrams,” according to the charging document. They also found “hundreds” of photographs of computer screens with sensitive company information displayed, including some that were clearly of his own laptop — a way to get around the company’s internal monitoring systems, the FBI says. The complaint details specific photographs taken as recently as December, but also as long ago as June 2018, just a few weeks after Chen was hired.
The FBI says that Chen had been placed on a “performance improvement plan” in December and was potentially in danger of being fired. Chen also told Apple he had applied for two new jobs outside the company, including one at an unnamed Chinese autonomous vehicle company.
Chen was arrested one day before he was scheduled to fly to China. He had told Apple he planned to visit his sick father, according to the complaint. Chen faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
“Apple takes confidentiality and the protection of our IP very seriously,” Tom Neumayr, a spokesperson for Apple, said in an email. “We are working with authorities on this matter and are referring all questions to the FBI.” Daniel Olmos, a lawyer for Chen, declined to comment.
The FBI charged a different Chinese national who worked on Apple’s self-driving car project, Xiaolang Zhang, with stealing trade secrets in July 2018. Zhang had worked at Apple for almost three years before his arrest. In May 2018, he similarly told his supervisors he planned to go to China to take care of his ailing mother. He also told them he was resigning to take a job at Chinese EV startup Xiaopeng Motors, Apple’s security team had him turn in his work phones and laptop. They discovered he had, among other things, AirDropped 40GB of sensitive data about the project to his wife’s laptop, 60 percent of which the company described as “highly problematic.”
The US has long suspected, and often accused, the Chinese government of encouraging trade secret theft as a way to build up its own industries. But indictments and further accusations have seen a recent uptick. In October 2018, the Department of Justice charged 10 Chinese nationals of hacking aerospace companies. One month later, the DOJ accused a state-owned company of stealing trade secrets from a US chipmaker called Micron Technologies. In December, the DOJ charged two more Chinese nationals with running a 12-year hacking campaign that compromised at least 45 companies and government agencies.
Most recently, Canadian officials arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the request of the US government. While the arrest originally centered on possible violations of US sanctions against Iran, this week, the Justice Department accused Meng and Huawei of fraud and stealing trade secrets from T-Mobile.
Update, January 30th 1:30PM ET: Added new details from the charging document about Chen’s final months with Apple.