A former Google engineer was arrested for allegedly stealing AI secrets for Chinese rivals

The development comes at a time of heightened tensions between the US and China over AI.

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A former Google engineer was arrested in California on Wednesday for stealing more than 500 files containing artificial intelligence trade secrets from the company and using the information to benefit rival tech companies in China.

In an indictment that was unsealed in a federal California court, prosecutors accused Linwei Ding, a 38-year-old Chinese national who started working at Google in 2019, of uploading trade secrets from his Google-issued laptop to personal cloud storage accounts. The documents that Ding stole involved “building blocks” of Google’s AI infrastructure, according to the indictment. He uploaded them to his personal accounts over a period of one year from May 2022 to May 2023.

Ding was arrested in Newark, California, and charged with four counts of theft of trade secrets. If convicted, he can be sentenced up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each count.

“We have strict safeguards to prevent the theft of our confidential commercial information and trade secrets,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda told Engadget. “After an investigation, we found that this employee stole numerous documents, and we quickly referred the case to law enforcement. We are grateful to the FBI for helping protect our information and will continue cooperating with them closely.”

The development comes at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and China over the explosion of artificial intelligence. Last year, the Biden administration banned the export of advanced AI chips designed by American companies like NVIDIA to China to stop the country from using AI to strengthen its military. “Today’s charges are the latest illustration of the lengths affiliates of companies based in the People’s Republic of China are wiling to go to steal American innovation,” said FBI director Christopher Wray in a statement. “The theft of innovative technology and trade secrets from American companies can cost jobs and have devastating economic and national security consequences.”

The indictment revealed all kinds of details about the nature of the crime. Ding allegedly copied information from Google’s files into Apple Notes on his laptop first, and then converted them to PDF files that he uploaded to his personal Google account to evade detection by Google’s data loss prevention systems. He also gave his Google badge to another Google employee in California to make it seem like he was working from Google’s offices in the state while actually working for rival companies in China. Prosecutors said that Ding helped in raising capital for one of the Chinese companies he worked with as its chief technology officer. Last year, he also founded another AI company in China and served as its CEO.

This isn’t the first time that the US has arrested a Chinese national for stealing trade secrets from American companies. In the last few years, the US attorney’s office in San Francisco has charged three former Apple employees for stealing trade secrets related to the Apple Car, a project the company recently canceled, and siphoning them off to companies in China. Last month, one of those engineers was sentenced to six months in prison and asked to pay nearly $150,000 in fines.