Apple’s autonomous car program Project Titan may be mysterious to everyone outside the company, but Titan engineers have access to thousands of top secret automotive files — a fact that has now led to another disturbing arrest. According to an NBC Bay Area report (via The Verge), the FBI has charged Apple employee Jizhong Chen with stealing Project Titan trade secrets before flying to China, where he had applied for a job with a direct competitor in the autonomous vehicle segment.
Chen is accused of possessing confidential Apple manuals, schematics, diagrams, and photographs, including images snapped inside an Apple building, and “an assembly drawing of an Apple-designed wiring harness for an autonomous vehicle.” In some cases, the FBI says Chen tried to dodge Apple’s internal monitoring systems by taking photos of documents displayed on his own laptop’s screen. He came under suspicion after a fellow employee noticed him taking photos in a sensitive work space, and was arrested one day before his scheduled flight to China.
The report marks the second time an Apple engineer was accused of bringing Project Titan secrets to a Chinese competitor. Last July, Xiaolang Zhang was stopped at San Jose International Airport after taking confidential files and items from Apple during a paternity leave, then buying a last-minute ticket to China. Zhang had been hired by China’s XMotors, an electric car company that later said it terminated his employment after learning of the investigation.
Reports of industrial espionage by Chinese companies and the Chinese government have been widespread in the consumer electronics industry for years, but Apple’s issues are especially noteworthy because of its penchant for secrecy and still-unclear autonomous vehicle plans. “Apple takes confidentiality and the protection of our IP very seriously,” the company said in a statement. “We are working with authorities on this matter and are referring all questions to the FBI.”
Chen faces a $250,000 fine and a possible 10-year prison sentence. His lawyer has thus far declined to comment on the charges.