A second Apple self-driving car engineer is accused of stealing trade secrets

Key Points
  • A recently unsealed affidavit by an FBI agent alleges former Apple engineer Jizhong Chen took confidential and proprietary information about Apple's self-driving project to his personal devices in an attempt to steal trade secrets.
  • Another engineer was accused of similar crimes in July.
  • Chen claimed he was applying for jobs internally at Apple, but allegedly applied to two external roles, including one at a direct competitor to Apple's self-driving car unit based in China.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

The FBI has accused a second Apple employee of attempting to steal trade secrets from the company regarding its secretive self-driving car program, according to a recently unsealed affidavit. NBC's Bay Area affiliate first reported the news.

This is the second employee in six months to be accused by the FBI of stealing trade secrets from Apple's self-driving car unit. In July, federal agents accused former Apple engineer Xiaolang Zhang of allegedly stealing proprietary information about the project and trying to bring it to XMotors, based in China.

Jizhong Chen was hired by Apple in June 2018 as a hardware developer engineer on the autonomous vehicles project, according to the sworn affidavit by an FBI agent that was originally filed on Jan. 22. The agent alleges an employee reported Chen after seeing him "taking wide angled photographs of the Project in the Building, which the employee found 'suspicious.'" Apple then allegedly asked to look at all of Chen's personal devices, according to the affidavit, and found Chen had backed up his work computer onto a personal hard-drive, violating Apple's policies.

Apple's review found about 100 photos taken inside Apple's building that housed the project on his personal devices along with "over two thousand files containing confidential and proprietary Apple material, including manuals, schematics and diagrams," according to the affidavit.

Chen allegedly told Apple he backed up the work to his personal devices "as an 'insurance policy' to support his job applications after being placed on a PIP," referring to the Performance Improvement Plan the agent claims Apple placed Chen on in December 2018. Apple allegedly found confidential and proprietary information on Chen's devices collected prior to his placement on the improvement plan.

While Chen allegedly told Apple he was applying for internal jobs, the company later learned he had applied for two external jobs, one of which was at a China-based direct competitor to Apple's autonomous vehicles project, according to the affidavit.

Apple suspended Chen without pay after speaking with him on Jan. 11, the affidavit says.

In a statement, Apple said, "Apple takes confidentiality and the protection of our IP very seriously. We are working with authorities on this matter and are referring all questions to the FBI."

Chen's lawyer, an FBI spokesperson and a spokesperson from the Northern District of California U.S. Attorney's Office all declined to comment.

Apple's self-driving group has faced recent headwinds. Last week, CNBC reported that the company had dismissed over 200 employees from Project Titan, as the initiative is known.

-CNBC's Josh Lipton contributed to this report.

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