On Monday, Xiaolang Zhang, a former Apple employee accused of stealing computer files containing trade secrets from Apple’s secretive car division, pleaded guilty in federal court in San Jose.
According to court filings on Monday, Zhang’s plea agreement with the US government is under seal. Zhang faces up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to a felony charge of trade secret theft. The sentencing is set for November.
Zhang was accused of downloading internal Apple files about the company’s car project, specifically a 25-page document containing engineering schematics for an autonomous vehicle circuit board. Zhang was also accused of stealing reference manuals and PDFs that described Apple’s prototypes and requirements.
Zhang was apprehended by federal agents at the San Jose airport in July 2018, where he was scheduled to fly to China. According to FBI and U.S. attorney’s office charging documents, he had previously worked for Apple since 2015, most recently as a hardware engineer on Apple’s autonomous vehicle team.
The charges provided a glimpse into a secretive side of Apple that the company, even years later, rarely acknowledges: its division developing self-driving electric vehicles.
An FBI agent stated in the 2018 charging documents that the company had approximately 5,000 “disclosed” employees, meaning they were aware of the project, and 2,700 “core employees” with access to project materials and databases.
According to the complaint, Apple uses internal software to track which employees are disclosed on which projects and requires them to attend in-person secrecy training. Zhang worked on the Compute Team of the autonomous car project, which designed and tested circuit boards for sensors.
Circuit design schematics are among the most valuable trade secrets in the electronics industry.
After Zhang took paternity leave and traveled to China, Apple suspected him of stealing trade secrets. When he returned to the company, he resigned, stating that he needed to return to China to care for his mother, according to the 2018 complaint.
He informed Apple that he intended to work for Xmotors, a leading Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer, and his access to Apple’s network was terminated.
According to the complaint, an Apple investigation discovered that Zhang downloaded documents and information from company databases. According to the complaint, Apple closed-circuit cameras captured Zhang entering the labs and removing hardware, which was later identified as circuit boards and a Linux server.
Jizhong Chen, another former Apple employee, is also facing charges for allegedly stealing trade secrets from Apple’s electric car division in early 2019. Chen, a US citizen, had also planned to visit China at the time. Chen has not entered a plea and is being represented by the same attorney as Zhang. A trial date has yet to be set.
Zhang’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Requests for comment from Apple representatives were not returned.