Apple engineers deal with a lot of confidential information, but leaking those secrets could land you in jail. Xiaolang Zhang was sentenced to 120 days in prison this week after being convicted of stealing Apple’s self-driving car technology, according to California court filings first reported by 9to5Mac Thursday. The former Apple engineer will also pay over $140,000 for attempting to hand Apple’s classified data to a Chinese competitor.
Zhang worked on “Project Titan,” the codename for Apple’s autonomous car division, starting in 2015. Titan has been in the works for roughly 10 years, but it remains one of Apple’s most secretive projects. Zhang announced he was quitting in 2018, after going on paternity leave, to return to China to care for his sick mother. However, his employer grew suspicious when he learned he was also joining XMotors, a Chinese startup developing autonomous cars.
During this final meeting, Zhang’s employer felt he was evasive, prompting an investigation from Apple’s New Product Security Team. Zhang regularly dealt with confidential files, but when he turned in his company laptop, his employer noticed he’d been downloading these classified documents at a suspicious rate.
Security footage showed Zhang entered software and hardware labs during his paternity leave and transferred confidential documents to his wife’s computer. One video showed him leaving Apple’s campus with a box of hardware.
This evidence was ultimately forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Zhang was arrested on July 7, 2018, shortly before boarding a flight to Beijing. The former Apple engineer confessed to taking documents from Apple and pleaded guilty to his charges.
It’s unclear what happened to XMotors. Their site is no longer active, but you can find a web archive of it. The company claimed to never receive any sensitive information about Apple’s technology. It agreed to work with local authorities in the investigation. The startup was a subsidiary of XPeng Motors, which now boasts its “world-leading smart driving assistance architecture.”
The relatively short jail sentence will be followed by a three-year supervised release. It remains unknown how much, if any, information was truly exposed from Project Titan. Zhang’s case is a reminder of how confidential Apple’s trade secrets really are, and what happens to those who try to leak.