They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, but in the case of one Apple employee, it was only worth three: “You’re under arrest.”
Such was the fate of engineer Jizhong Chen, who was brought into custody by the FBI late last month after he was accused of stealing trade secrets from the company. The employee, who was suspended without pay by Apple, was subsequently caught with nearly 100 photos of “sensitive” work spaces on his personal devices, along with reams of other classified data.
The information involved concerned Apple’s autonomous car program said to be in the works, allegedly referred to as Project Titan—an entity so secretive in and of itself that the Silicon Valley behemoth only recently acknowledged its existence, and only vaguely at that.
Chen was first red-flagged by fellow employees, who noticed him taking a “suspicious” number of pictures in the workplace. He was later found to have over 2,000 files of Apple’s intellectual property downloaded to his personal devices, including schematics, manuals, and diagrams.
The matter became a federal concern when the FBI determined that Chen, a Chinese national, may have been heading to a Chinese rival company with the information in the matter of self-driving cars. He had apparently applied for a position at one of the country’s top autonomous vehicle firms and was arrested the day before he was supposed to leave for China to interview for the job.
For his part, Chen said he had also applied for several internal posts and downloaded the information “as an insurance policy” after Apple placed him on a Performance Improvement Plan in December 2018. But during Apple’s investigation into the matter, the company allegedly found downloads predating that situation.
Still, the incident is strangely not unique for the iPhone maker. Chen is the second Project Titan engineer accused by the FBI of siphoning trade secrets in the past 6 months.
Former engineer Xiaolang Zhang was arrested last July after the FBI claimed he was planning to bring secretive information to Chinese vehicle maker XMotors. Zhang was also en route to China when he was confronted by federal agents, brought into custody while at the San Jose International Airport.
Zhang pleaded not guilty to trade secret theft just days after his arrest. Both cases are ongoing.
But when it comes to Apple’s hush-hush aspirations surrounding self-driving cars, it seems the cat is trying pretty hard to get out of the bag.