trade secret theft
Adobe Stock / Vitalii Vodolazskyi

In a move that has sent shockwaves through the global tech industry, Weibao Wang, a former Apple engineer and current executive at Jidu, an electric vehicle startup owned by Chinese tech titan Baidu, has been charged with stealing Apple’s trade secrets.

According to a recent CNBC report, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) took action on Tuesday, indicting Wang on charges of “theft and attempted theft” of Apple’s autonomous driving technology. The high-profile case has the potential to have far-reaching consequences for both the tech industry and international relations.

Wang joined Apple as a software engineer in 2016, where he played an instrumental role in the company’s clandestine autonomous driving project. It was during this time that he signed a confidentiality agreement, binding him to the highest levels of secrecy. In 2018, however, Wang resigned from his role, only to join a China-based company working on self-driving cars—a move that caught Apple by surprise.

Following his departure, Apple discovered evidence of potential foul play. Wang had accessed confidential databases days before he left, prompting a law enforcement search of his home. Although Wang complied with the search warrant, he departed for China that night. Investigators subsequently unearthed damning information: Wang had accessed confidential data regarding Apple’s autonomous systems.

An Apple a Day Keeps the Trade Secrets Away

The charges brought against Wang have revealed a troubling trend within Apple. This isn’t the first time the tech giant has found its employees involved in the theft of trade secrets. In 2018 and 2019, two employees faced charges for stealing confidential details from Apple’s self-driving project. One of these engineers, Xiaolang Zhang, confessed to stealing Apple’s trade secrets and leaking them to Chinese EV startup Xiaopeng Motors.

Now Wang finds himself in hot water. If convicted, he could face up to 10 years behind bars and be liable for a $250,000 fine or “twice the gross gain or loss resulting from the scheme” for each count of theft or attempted theft of trade secrets.

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

However, despite the charges, Wang’s extradition seems unlikely due to the lack of an extradition treaty between the US and China. This further complicates the situation, potentially turning it into an international standoff.

Steering Clear of Trade Secrets

While Wang’s case takes center stage, it’s not the only instance of trade secret theft making headlines. The DOJ has announced charges against four people in total, involving five cases related to technology theft for the benefit of China, Russia, and Iran. One such individual is Liming Li, a senior software engineer accused of stealing automotive source code for use in China. These charges include theft of metrology software code used in “smart” automotive manufacturing equipment, a clear violation of trade secrets law.

Each of these cases represents the first enforcement actions of the DOJ’s newly formed Disruptive Technology Strike Force. Co-led by the Department of Commerce, the strike force’s main goal is to protect sensitive American technology from illegal acquisition.

“Protecting sensitive American technology—like source code for ‘smart’ automotive manufacturing equipment or items used to develop quantum cryptography—from being illegally acquired by our adversaries is why we stood up the Disruptive Technology Strike Force,” stated Matthew S. Axelrod, assistant secretary for export enforcement at the Department of Commerce.

As the cases unfold, the trade secrets theft crisis seems to loom large over the tech industry. The situation, both disconcerting and complex, underscores the importance of strict confidentiality agreements and robust security measures. Trade secrets are not just an asset, but the lifeblood of tech companies, which must be fiercely protected against any attempt of unauthorized acquisition or exploitation.

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