Former Apple employee Xiaolang Zhang pleads guilty

An aerial view of Apple Park is seen in Cupertino, California, the United States, 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 automotive division, pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in San Jose.

Zhang’s plea deal with the US government is under seal, according to court documents filed on Monday. Zhang faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine after pleading guilty to a felony charge of stealing trade secrets. Judgment is scheduled for November.

Zhang was accused of downloading internal Apple files on the company’s automotive project, specifically a 25-page document including technical schematics of a circuit board for an autonomous vehicle. Zhang was also accused of taking reference manuals and PDFs describing Apple’s prototypes and prototype requirements.

Zhang was arrested by federal agents in July 2018 at San Jose airport, where he planned to fly to China. He previously worked for Apple since 2015, most recently as a hardware engineer with Apple’s autonomous vehicles team, according to charging documents from the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The accusations gave a glimpse into a secret side of Apple that the company, even years later, still doesn’t acknowledge: its division developing self-driving electric vehicles.

In 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 “key employees” with access to the documents and to the project databases.

Apple uses internal software to track which employees are disclosed on which projects and are required to complete in-person secrecy training, according to the complaint. Zhang worked in the Self-Driving Car Project Computing Team, which designed and tested circuit boards for the sensors.

Circuit design schematics are considered among the electronics industry’s most valuable trade secrets.

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, one of China’s leading electric vehicle companies, and that his access to Apple’s network had been cut off.

An Apple investigation found that Zhang downloaded documents and information from the company’s databases, according to the complaint. Apple’s closed-circuit cameras even captured Zhang entering the labs and removing hardware, which was later identified as circuit boards and a Linux server, according to the complaint.

Another former Apple employee, Jizhong Chen, also faces charges related to the alleged theft of trade secrets from Apple’s electric car division in early 2019. In the case, Chen, a US citizen, also planned to go to China. Chen has not pleaded guilty and is represented by the same attorney as Zhang. A trial date has not been set.

A lawyer for Zhang did not respond to a request for comment. Apple representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

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