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Second Engineer Accused of Stealing Autonomous Car Trade Secrets from Apple

by Chris Brook on Thursday January 31, 2019

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The suspect, a Chinese national, allegedly took files containing confidential and proprietary Apple data and had recently applied for a job at a China-based self-driving company.

For the second time in the last seven months an Apple employee is being accused of stealing trade secrets related to the company's autonomous car project.

In charges unsealed on Wednesday, the FBI is alleging that Jizhong Chen, a Chinese national, took more than 2,000 files containing proprietary material on Project Titan, the codename given to Apple's self driving car division.

Chen, who was hired as a hardware developer engineer for the project last summer, piqued Apple's suspicion when one of his colleagues saw him taking wide angled photos with his phone in a secure workspace. Upon inspecting his personal devices, Apple found around 100 photos taken inside an Apple building, and “over two thousand files containing confidential and proprietary Apple material, including manuals, schematics and diagrams.”

Chen wasn't selective with the data he took from Apple, the FBI alleges; he took everything on his work machine.

"Apple's review of Chen's personally-owned hard-drive showed that Chen conducted a backup of his entire work computer onto a personally-owned hard-drive, in violation of Apple policy, since Chen's Apple work computer had Apple's confidential and proprietary materials," the complaint reads.

According to the affidavit, Apple found a photo on Chen’s computer showing an assembly drawing of an Apple-designed wiring harness for an autonomous vehicle; another included a diagram of autonomy architecture, showing input from sensors and output to actuators.

Chen defended his actions, saying he was planning on using the data as an “insurance policy” as he applied to jobs inside Apple. According to the complaint, that wasn’t exactly the case. Apple learned that he applied for two jobs outside the company, including one at a Chinese autonomous vehicle company, one that’s considered a competitor of Apple’s self-driving car project.

Little has come out about the project since it was first hinted at back in 2017 on purpose. It's considered a closely guarded secret.

Chen was caught by the FBI a day before before he was slated to fly to China, allegedly to visit his ill father, just like this past summer, when another now ex-Apple employee was caught pilfering trade secrets.

Apple's Digital Forensic Investigations team ultimately discovered that Xiaolang Zhang, the employee that was arrested last summer, had downloaded sensitive files pertaining to self-driving car technology, like data on power levels, low voltage requirements, battery information, and drivetrain suspension mounts.

While stopping employees from taking photos of proprietary manuals and schematics is difficult, the copying of files to another machine is something that likely could have been prevented with a robust data protection program that can monitor file movement and implement device control solutions.

Chen, like Zhang, was one of only 1,200 "core" Project Titan employees, meaning he worked directly on the development side of things on a "need to know" basis.

If convicted, Chen could receive 10 years in jail and up to a $250,000 fine.

Self-driving car image via zombieite's Flickr photostream, Creative Commons

Tags: IP theft

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Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Data Insider. He is a technology journalist with a decade of experience writing about information security, hackers, and privacy. Chris has attended many infosec conferences and has interviewed hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site which is a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.