A former Apple employee on Monday pled guilty to the theft of trade secrets from the tech firm.
The material stolen by Xiaolang Zhang was linked to Apple’s work on its first-ever automobile, a project that’s been in and out of the headlines for years though never officially confirmed by the company.
Zhang admitted to the charge at a court in San Jose, California, on Monday, and for his crime faces up to 10 years in jail and fines totaling up to $250,000, according to CNBC.
The story of Zhang’s involvement with Apple goes back years. He was first hired by the tech giant toward the end of 2015 to work on Apple’s car project — known as Project Titan — as part of a team building software and hardware for the self-driving vehicle.
Three years after joining, permanent U.S. resident Zhang quit Apple for XMotors, a Silicon Valley-based Chinese startup focused on creating autonomous-car technology.
Around the time of his departure from Apple, the company reportedly noticed Zhang behaving in an unusual manner, conduct that prompted it to launch an internal investigation into its former employee to see if anything was amiss. After examining Zhang’s MacBook and work-issued iPhones that he was asked to turn in, the investigating team arrived at the belief that Zhang had likely walked off with confidential data linked to Project Titan.
The former Apple employee stood accused of downloading various material that included a 25-page document containing engineering schematics of a circuit board for an autonomous vehicle, and data linked to prototypes of Apple’s car.
Zhang’s was eventually arrested in July 2018 when federal agents charged him with theft of trade secrets belonging to Apple. After pleading not guilty in 2018, Zhang this week changed tack and admitted to the charge as part of a plea agreement that is currently under seal.
He’s scheduled to be sentenced on November 14.
While a serious crime, corrupt employees passing on trade secrets is nothing new. However, Apple’s high profile, famously secretive nature, and ongoing reluctance to officially confirm the existence of arguably its most ambitious project to date, made the story of Zhang’s unscrupulous actions all the more intriguing, and has no doubt prompted Apple to review its processes in a bid to prevent similar crimes from happening in the future.