Wednesday 11 July 2018 11:55 am

Legal case against former Apple employee reveals trade secrets on its self-driving car technology

Criminal charges filed against an ex-Apple employee for stealing trade secrets on the company's self-driving car technology have revealed some interesting new details on what Apple is up to.

Xiaolang Zhang was charged by a US federal court over evidence submitted by Apple that Zhang accepted a position at Chinese rival Xmotors, and downloaded the blueprints for a circuit board for an autonomous car from the company right before booking a last-minute flight to China.

A statement provided this morning by Xmotors said that they had ended their relationship with Zhang, and that there is no indication he had revealed any trade secrets while in its employment. According to Reuters, Zhang's arraignment in the US is set for July 27 and he has yet to enter a plea.

More significantly, the case has revealed some new information on the current status of Apple's self-driving car project.

Read more: It looks like Apple's driverless car has morphed into a staff shuttle bus

As of the dates of Zhang's employment at the firm, around 5,000 employees were authorised to access information about the program, including 2,700 staff with access to secret databases.

According to the complaint, Zhang was shown a "proprietary chip" by employees and was working on circuit boards that could have been part of a sensor fusion project, which involves using multiple sensors to make the cars more accurate in their decisions while in self-driving mode.

The fact that Apple provided this information to authorities as part of the complaint indicates that further technological details could come to light in court if the case goes ahead, marking a change in attitude for the tech giant which previously fought fiercely to keep details of its self-driving cars under wraps.

The entire project's existence was a secret until late 2016, when Apple wrote a letter to US regulators asking them not to restrict testing of autonomous vehicles. Last year, the company acquired a permit to test the cars in California.

However the leak has also raised wider concerns in the industry about tech giants protecting their data from insider breaches, particularly after Tesla also issued a lawsuit against a former employee last month.

Read more: Tesla files lawsuit against former employee who hacked its systems

"First Tesla, now Apple – as we inch closer to building autonomous cars, along with the programmable complexities that this entails, it’s not surprising that employees are increasingly tempted to get their hands on sensitive intellectual property (IP) through software theft," said Jamie Graves, CEO and founder of cyber security startup Zonefox.

"With anything automotive, driverless or otherwise, protecting IP is vital. For Apple’s autonomous car project to succeed, the company must recognise that there could be dangerous consequences on the road for its customers if its IP falls into the wrong hands."