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Chinese engineer suspected of stealing Apple corporate secrets detained by FBI
Monika Gruszewicz / Shutterstock.com
Federal law enforcement officials closed in on a Chinese national accused of attempting to make off with valuable trade secrets owned by Apple computers as he was trying to flee the country.
Nabbed at the airport, Xiaolang Zhang was moments from getting away after FBI officials determined that he stole proprietary hardware and software from his employer’s ultra-secret self-driving vehicle program.
Amateur hour at Apple
Zhang’s act of intellectual property theft comes just months after FBI Director Christopher Wray warned the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee that Chinese students, academics, and researchers are exploiting the America’s “very open research and development environment,” thereby constituting a “whole-of-society threat.” Some experts believe that Beijing has trained multiple amateur Chinese professionals to infiltrate corporate America and collect small amounts of data in a “vacuum cleaner” approach to espionage.
Zhang certainly fits the profile of the novice foreign agent. He began working for Apple in 2015 as a hardware engineer on the tech giant’s autonomous vehicle development team in Silicon Valley, but management became alarmed when Zhang returned from a trip to China following his paternity leave with sudden and unexpected plans to resign from the company and work for a Chinese competitor.
The hardware specialist told his bosses that he would be returning to a China to take care of his mother and would be taking a job with Xiaopeng Motors, a Chinese startup that just so happens to develop electric cars and autonomous vehicle technology. After his impromptu resignation, Apple’s in-house investigators decided to look into Zhang’s network history and discovered that his activity increased “exponentially” in the days before his resignation.
While he was supposed to be on paid paternity leave, Zhang downloaded “copious” amounts of data containing trade secrets and sensitive information regarding Apple’s cutting-edge autonomous software. Searching his wife’s computer, the cyber-detectives determined that 60 percent of the information on her device was “highly problematic.”
Among the data that Zhang appropriated from Apple was a 25-page document containing blueprints for a circuit board used in the company’s self-driving platform. He also told interviewers that his colleagues showed him a proprietary chip during an April 28 visit to Apple’s campus.
In the nick of time
Apple passed their findings on to the FBI, and when federal investigators learned learned that Zhang planned to fly to Beijing with Hainan Airlines, they apprehended him at the airport after he passed through a security checkpoint.
In a statement to USA Today following news of Zhang’s apprehension, Apple said the company “takes confidentiality and the protection of our intellectual property very seriously. We’re working with authorities on this matter and will do everything possible to make sure this individual and any other individuals involved are held accountable for their actions.”
Made in China 2025
China is currently pursuing plans to become technologically independent in less than a decade, and the Asian nation hopes to become a worldwide leader in robotics and medical technology. To accomplish that end, China is simultaneously pursuing legitimate partnerships with Western companies while secretly appropriating foreign technologies.
Mara Hvistendahl, a national fellow at the New America Foundation and an expert on Chinese industrial espionage, told Bloomberg that Beijing often takes a hands-off approach to corporate theft while actively encouraging it, saying:
When a Chinese business sets out to steal a U.S. competitor’s technology or trade secret, state approval is often implicit rather than explicit — meaning that the Chinese government prioritizes certain areas for development, and then looks the other way once an abuse is committed.
President Donald Trump has consistently lashed out at China for their intellectual property theft and made ending corporate espionage from the world’s second largest economy a cornerstone of his foreign policy agenda with Asia.
“We’re talking about big damages,” Trump said during a January interview regarding China’s economic threats. “We’re talking about numbers that you haven’t even thought about.”
In August, Trump instructed the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to begin cataloguing China’s offenses, providing the evidence needed to slap Section 232 tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum. The aggressive action compelled China to negotiate behind the scenes and pledge to end corporate espionage.
From low-level offenders like Zhang to entire Chinese industries, the Trump administration has had enough. China’s era of brazen and unpunished intellectual property theft will soon be over.
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