China-bound ex-Apple engineer admits to trade secrets theft

A FORMER Apple Inc. engineer pleaded guilty to criminal charges that he stole proprietary information from the company while preparing to go work for a Chinese startup that makes electric cars with autonomous driving features.

Zhang Xiaolang, who was arrested in July 2018 on his way to catch a one-way flight to China, admitted to a single count of trade-secret theft at a hearing Monday in federal court in San Jose, California, according to the court’s electronic docket.

A judge ordered his plea agreement to be filed under seal from public view and set Zhang’s sentencing for Nov. 14. Trade secret theft carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

US prosecutors accused Zhang of downloading a 25-page Apple document to his wife’s computer that included schematic drawings of a circuit board design for a portion of an autonomous vehicle.

Apple hired Zhang in 2015 to work as a hardware engineer in its autonomous car project, which has yet to generate a commercial product.

In April 2018, Zhang announced his intention to resign, saying he wanted to return to China to be near his ailing mother and that he intended to take a job at Xpeng Inc.

Zhang’s lawyer, Daniel Olmos, declined to comment on the plea agreement. An Xpeng representative had no immediate comment.

In January 2019, federal prosecutors charged another Apple engineer, Jizhong Chen, with stealing proprietary information from the company’s self-driving car project while applying to work for a Chinese rival.

A search of a hard drive owned by Chen found thousands of sensitive documents along with 100 photos taken inside the company’s self-driving facility, according to an FBI affidavit.

The engineer told Apple he planned to travel to China to visit his ill father, but he was arrested before he could board his direct flight.

Chen has pleaded not guilty and the case is still pending.

The cases are US v. Zhang, 18-cr-00312, and US v. Chen, 19-cr-00056, US District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose). –BLOOMBERG