An aerial view of Apple Park is seen in Cupertino, California, United States on October 28, 2021.
Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Xiaolang Zhang, a former Apple employee accused of stealing computer files containing trade secrets about Apple’s secret auto division, pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in San Jose.
Zhang’s plea deal with the US government has been sealed, according to court records on Monday. Zhang faces a whopping 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to theft of trade secrets. The verdict is scheduled for November.
Zhang was accused of downloading internal Apple files about the company’s car project, specifically a 25-page document containing engineering schematics of a circuit board for an autonomous vehicle. Zhang was also accused of taking reference manuals and PDFs detailing Apple’s prototypes and prototyping requirements.
Zhang was arrested in July 2018 by federal agents at the San Jose airport, where he planned to fly to China. He previously worked for Apple since 2015, most recently as a hardware engineer on Apple’s autonomous vehicle team, according to documents from the FBI and the US law firm.
The charges gave a glimpse into a mysterious side of Apple that the company still doesn’t often acknowledge even years later: the division that develops autonomous electric vehicles.
In the 2018 billing documents, an FBI agent said that company had about 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 are required to attend personal confidentiality training. Zhang worked on the Compute Team of the autonomous car project, which designed and tested printed circuit boards for sensors.
Circuit design schematics are considered one of the most valuable trade secrets in the electronics industry.
Apple first suspected Zhang of stealing trade secrets after he took paternity leave and traveled to China. When he returned to the company, he tendered his resignation, saying he wanted to return to China and take care of his mother, according to the 2018 complaint.
He told Apple that he planned to work for Xmotors, a leading Chinese electric vehicle company, and that his access to Apple’s network was being cut.
An Apple investigation found that, according to the complaint, Zhang downloaded documents and information from company databases. Apple closed-circuit cameras even captured Zhang entering the labs and removing hardware, which was later identified as circuit boards and a Linux server, the complaint said.
Another former Apple employee, Jizhong Chen, is also accused of stealing trade secrets from Apple’s electric car division in early 2019. In that case, Chen, a US citizen, was also planning to travel to China. Chen has pleaded not guilty and is represented by the same lawyer as Zhang. No trial date has been set.
A lawyer for Zhang did not respond to a request for comment. Apple representatives did not respond to requests for comment.