- The FBI charged a former Apple employee with stealing trade secrets about its self-driving-car program.
- The filing revealed just how secretive Apple can be.
- A fellow employee turned the suspect into Apple security after he saw the suspect taking a photo in his own workspace.
The FBI is looking into whether a former Apple employee was trying to steal valuable and sensitive trade secrets from Apple’s self-driving-car program.
The complaint, filed on Friday, is sure to reignite concerns about Chinese industrial espionage, especially after Huawei was charged with stealing trade secrets, and after another former Apple employee was charged in a similar case involving the company’s self-driving-car program last year.
Jizhong Chen, the former Apple employee who is accused of stealing trade secrets, is a Chinese citizen and requires a Mandarin translator, according to court documents reviewed by Business Insider. According to the FBI, he applied to work at a Chinese autonomous-vehicle company in the month before he was found.
But the criminal complaint also revealed a few new details about Apple’s car program, and the lengths it goes to keep its secret in the face of intense curiosity from the media and competitors.
In fact, all employees who know about the automotive project inside of Apple – only 5,000 out of Apple’s 140,000 employees – must attend an “in-person secrecy training.”
“The training covered the importance of keeping the nature and the details of the project secret and avoiding intentional or unintentional information leaks,” according to the FBI.
It continued: “The training reviewed methods for ensuring information about the project is only provided to individuals disclosed on the project, the fact that family members should not have access to information about the project, as well as possible consequences for providing information or confirmation of information to non-disclosed individuals.”
Even that description of the secrecy training uses a particular piece of Apple jargon – “disclosed.” According to former Apple employees, the company uses that term to denote what employees can know about the products they’re working on. If you need to know certain information to do your job, you get “disclosed.”
But just because you’re “disclosed” doesn’t mean you have full access to information. According to the complaint, of the 5,000 people who were disclosed on the car project, only 1,200 “core project employees” had access to the building where the project is housed.
“Even within Apple’s operations, the project’s development in the building is not listed; accordingly, only disclosed employees know about the project’s development in the building,” according to the complaint.
This secrecy training apparently has results: Chen was first reported to Apple’s security division, Global Security, by a fellow employee who said they saw him taking photographs of his screen.
His fellow employees turned him in.
“According to the Apple Global Security employees I spoke with, Chen admitted to taking photographs in Apple’s workspace,” according to the FBI agent who wrote the complaint. Apple Global Security then reviewed what files were on Chen’s computer and personal phone, with his consent, according to the complaint. Chen had backed up his entire work computer, a no-no at Apple (and other tech companies).
The investigators also found more than 100 photos of Chen’s computer screen, which is one way to take documents without leaving a digital trace. But even then, Apple has some security – the photos Apple found of Chen’s screen also showed a label with his name near the screen.
“Apple considered the Apple material on Chen’s personally-owned computer and personally-owned hard-drive confidential and proprietary and said the disclosure of it would be ‘enormously damaging’ to Apple,” according to the complaint.
One of the photos was of a diagram related to Apple’s self-driving hardware. It showed the various sensors Apple used to determine where the car was and how they connected to actuators, which is what would actually pilot the vehicle. Chen’s login shows his name at the bottom of the image, according to the FBI.
Another photo that Chen was accused of taking was of a custom “wire harness,” and that, too, had Chen’s name at the bottom of the file.
While much remains mysterious about Apple’s self-driving-car program, this week’s FBI complaint shows that it’s by design. Not only does Apple work hard to limit the number of its employees who know about the program, it uses several digital and real-world measures to make sure its secrets stay secret. And if someone does try to steal information, other Apple employees have their eyes out for suspicious behaviour – such as taking a photograph at work.
The court case is number 5:19-mj-70117-MRGD-1 in the US District Court in California’s Northern District.
You can read the entire complaint below:
US v. Jizhong Chen by on Scribd
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