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Former Apple employee charged with stealing autonomous car trade secrets

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Former hardware engineer, who worked on autonomous cars at Apple, arrested at airport, attempting to board a flight for China with company secrets.

Xiaolang Zhang, a hardware engineer who until recently worked for Apple, was picked up Saturday at San Jose International Airport, while attempting to board a flight to Beijing, on his way to Hangzhou, China, the San Jose Mercury News reported. He was charged with stealing trade secrets from the tech giant on Monday.

Zhang is facing federal charges of Theft of Trade Secrets, with recommended penalties of 10 years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine, a $100 special assessment and three years of supervised release.

According to a court filing, Zhang worked on the company's self-driving car initiative, dubbed "Project Titan," as a member of the Compute Team. The group was tasked with designing and testing circuit boards to analyze data ingested by various vehicle sensors, granting Zhang broad access to databases containing trade secrets and sensitive intellectual property.

In April, Zhang left Apple on paternity leave and during that time visited China with his family. Upon his return, he informed the company that he would be leaving and planned to live in Guangzhou to tend to his ill mother. During the meeting, he also told a supervisor that he was joining Chinese electric car startup XMotors.

When Zhang turned in his company-issued devices, Apple noticed unusual download activity, leading them to believe he may have downloaded information illegally. Security cameras and security badge swipe data also placed Zhang in company labs during his paternity leave. Though he initially denied being on company property, Zhang, when confronted, admitted he was in Apple's hardware labs and had taken items including two circuit boards and a linux server.

The FBI was notified, and they searched Zhang's residence. He was interviewed by agents, at which time he admitted to taking files, a process that involved air-dropping documents to his wife's personal computer.

He was arrested after the FBI discovered that he had purchased a ticket to leave the country.

Zhang appeared in court Monday, with a Mandarin translator present; he did not enter a plea.

A LinkedIn profile that appears to belong to Zhang says that he joined Apple in December of 2015 but lists him as still working there as a Hardware System Engineer working on a "high-performance computing HW system." He was educated at Southeast University and the University of British Columbia, working as a Research Assistant at the later university prior to stints at PMC-Sierra and Marvell Semiconductor.

Other interesting tidbits from the article shed light on Apple's car project. According to the FBI, some 5,000 of Apple's 135,000 full time employees are disclosed to parts of the initiative, though not all have access to databases containing sensitive material. Of the 5,000, approximately 2,700 "core employees" have database access, a much larger number than previously thought.