As autonomous vehicles quickly move farther towards the mainstream, the underlying technology has become increasingly more valuable and has led to an uptick in the theft of autonomous vehicle (“AV”) trade secrets. Indeed, criminal prosecutions of former employees for trade secret theft have been on the rise, especially in the autonomous vehicle segment. Two recent cases underscore the enforcement agencies’ efforts to stem the rise in trade secret theft in the AV segment. Anthony Scott Levandowski was a former executive at both Uber and Google. He departed Google and created a new company named Ottomotto, LLC that was later purchased by Uber. Levandowski pled guilty to theft of trade secrets from Google, admitting that he downloaded approximately 14,000 files from an internal, password-protected Google server to his personal laptop, including a key internal tracking document from Google that detailed the status of its self-driving car program. Levandowki faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and $250,000 fine plus restitution.
In yet another case, Jizhong Chen was a Hardware Developer Engineer at Apple where he worked on the technical system design, optics, and hardware integration of Apple’s self-driving program named “Project Titan.” After an Apple employee reported seeing Chen taking photographs at Apple’s work space, Apple’s security team examined and reportedly found thousands of files on Chen’s personal computer, in violation of Apple policy. The criminal complaint alleges that Chen downloaded the files from his work computer onto his personal computer as an “insurance policy” after Apple placed him on a Performance Improvement Plan to improve his work performance. His personal computer allegedly contained over 2,000 proprietary Apple files. He was arrested by the FBI the day before he was scheduled to fly to China for an interview with a competing company. Chen was indicted in 2019 and faces up to ten years in prison. A second Apple engineer, Xiaolang Zhang, was also arrested in connection with the theft of trade secrets pertaining to the Project Titan program. Zhang was captured by Apple’s video surveillance systems entering Apple premises at night, and taking proprietary Apple hardware and files from its autonomous vehicle software labs. Zhang later airdropped the data to his personal laptop. Zhang was indicted by a grand jury in 2018.
Given the increasing popularity of self-driving technology, autonomous vehicle developers should remain vigilant in protecting their vital design documents and data, and should be sure to implement sound policies for retrieving data upon employee departure.