A former Apple employee who was accused of stealing computer files containing trade secrets has pleaded guilty in a federal court. Xiaolang Zhang was arrested in July 2018 as he prepared to leave for China. He had previously made another trip, during which time, Apple’s internal monitoring systems reported suspicious activity.
Apple uses internal software to track which employees are disclosed on which projects, and are required to attend in-person secrecy training, according to the complaint. Zhang worked on the autonomous car project’s Compute Team, which designed and tested circuit boards for sensors.
Xiolang worked as an engineer for the Apple’s car division which has had sparse details being leaked since 2020. Apple’s employee departmental heiarchy includes those that are either “disclosed” and have direct knowledge of the projects they are working on, or “core” staff who work on select pieces or materials. At the time of his arrest Apple said it had around 5,000 disclosed staff and about 2,700 core working on the project. Xiolang was accused of taking schematics of a circuit board for the autonomous vehicle along with reference manuals, other prototype information, and even a Linux server.
When the former Apple employee had returned from a previous trip to China he told the company he planned to move back to take care of his mother and get a job at a company called Xmotors (Xmotors.ai) who is a subsidiary of Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer Xpeng (Guangzhou Xiaopeng Motors Technology Co Ltd). At this point Apple removed his network access then an investigation led to security camera footage revealing him taking hardware. Another employee is facing similar charges filed in 2019, and being represented by the same lawyer, but they have not pleaded guilty. According to court documents Xiaolang’s case will continue on November 14, 2022.