The United States has charged a former Apple engineer of stealing trade secrets, and then fleeing to mainland China.

The US Department of Justice announced that former Apple staffer Weibao Wang has been charged with theft and attempted theft of trade secrets in connection with a scheme to access, download, and steal Apple technology related to autonomous systems, including that Apple’s self-driving car project (codenamed Project Titan).

Apple it should be noted has previously been plagued with multiple trade secret thefts from Project Titan. In December 2019 Apple was said to have “deep concerns” that two former Apple employees, who were born in China, could flee to their homeland before their trial.

Previous thefts

In July 2018, Xiaolang Zhang had been arrested by the FBI as he attempted to leave the United States, after allegedly stealing self-driving car secrets.

The feds had arrested Zhang at the San Jose airport as he was about to board a flight for China.

Zhang had allegedly booked the last-minute flight to China after downloading the plan for a circuit board for a self-driving car. The suspect allegedly planned to move to Chinese autonomous vehicle start-up called Xiaopeng Motors.

In August 2022 Zhang pleaded guilty of stealing trade secrets.

Meanwhile another man, Jizhong Chen, had allegedly stole more than 2,000 files from Apple containing “manuals, schematics, diagrams and photographs of computer screens showing pages in Apple’s secure databases” with intent to share them.

Chen had been arrested by the FBI in January 2019 at a train station on his way to San Francisco International Airport for a trip to China.

Also in August 2022, Jizhong Chen had pleaded not guilty to stealing trade secrets from Apple.

Trade secrets

Now on Tuesday the DoJ announced a set of charges against another former Apple staffer.

Apple had hired Weibao Wang, 35, formerly of Mountain View, California, to work as a software engineer beginning in March of 2016. The indictment describes how Wang signed a confidentiality agreement with Apple,and he was assigned to work with a team at Apple that designed and developed hardware and software for autonomous systems, which can have a variety of applications, such as self-driving cars.

“Innovation is alive and well in Silicon Valley – indeed, throughout the Northern District of California,” said US Attorney Ramsey. “Unfortunately, there will always be some who cheat the system by stealing and profiting from the fruits of others’ labour. The Wang prosecution is but one example.”

According to the indictment, in November of 2017, a little more than two and a half years after being granted access to a range of Apple’s sensitive materials, Wang signed a letter accepting an offer of full-time employment as a Staff Engineer with the US-based subsidiary of a company headquartered in the People’s Republic of China.

The parent company is described in the indictment as “COMPANY ONE” and allegedly was working to develop self-driving cars. The indictment alleges Wang waited more than four months after signing the new employment agreement before informing Apple that he was resigning.

After Wang’s last day at Apple on 16 April 2018, Apple reviewed access logs documenting historical activity on Apple’s network, and they identified Wang as having accessed large amounts of sensitive proprietary and confidential information in the days leading up to his departure from Apple.

On 27 June 2018 US law enforcement searched Wang’s Mountain View home and discovered large quantities of data taken from Apple prior to his departure.

Wang was present during the search and he told agents he had no plans to travel, which they unbelievably seemed to have accepted at face value and failed to detain him.

According to the DoJ, Wang that same night purchased a one-way plane ticket from San Francisco International Airport to Guangzhou, China, and boarded a flight.

Wang faces a maximum statutory sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine in the amount of $250,000 for each count of theft or attempted theft of trade secrets.

Project Titan

Apple’s self-driving car attempt has been in development since 2014, when it was predicted to release an electric car sometime in 2019.

Rumours had been strengthened in July 2015 when CEO Tim Cook was in spotted in Germany, amid reports that Apple was close to agreeing a partnership with BMW. Apple was reportedly at the time going to use the BMW i3 vehicle as the basis for its ‘Apple Car’.

But when 2019 arrived (the year when Apple’s first car was expected) the firm actually scaled back its ambitions at Project Titan, and laid off 190 people from the team.

Then in December 2020 it was reported that Apple had set 2024 as the deadline to produce a passenger vehicle, with a new battery design to ‘radically’ reduce cost and increase range.

But in September 2021, respected car veteran Doug Field, who was vice president of special projects at Apple and in charge of Project Titan, departed the iPad maker.

Then in November 2021 Apple once again delayed the arrival of its car to a target date of 2025.

Interesting details about Apple’s car were revealed in December 2021 after an investigation of it’s patent filings, by the popular YouTube channel CarWow.

For example, Apple has patented the idea of placing a OLED screen along the width of the car itself on both sides, creating a changeable display (or wallpaper) visible to people outside the vehicle.

In December 2022 Apple reportedly again scaled back its plans for an self-driving electric vehicle, and postponed the car’s target launch date to 2026.

That said, reports filed with the State of California show that Apple is actually testing vehicles on the state’s roads.

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