An Apple employee has been charged by the FBI with stealing self-driving car secrets from the company's secretive Project Titan division, according to a charge document seen by NBC's Bay Area affiliate.
Project Titan has been the center of many speculations since it launched in 2014. Initially it was believed to be working on an electric car, but executives hires in 2016 pointed towards autonomous driving. Recently, Titan has undergone some major reshuffling, as Apple laid off 200 employees tied to the project earlier this month.
Jizhong Chen, a Chinese national, was hired by Apple as a hardware developer engineer for its self-driving car project in June 2018, according to the unsealed FBI charge sheet.
He aroused suspicion when fellow employees saw him taking photos. After that, Apple asked to look at his personal devices and found "over two thousand files containing confidential and proprietary Apple material, including manuals, schematics and diagrams," backed up on a personal hard drive. It was in violation of Apple's policies.
Chen claimed the images were an "insurance policy" because he was making job applications after being placed on a performance improvement plan in December 2018. However, Apple found he had collected information before being put on the improvement plan, the FBI document said.
Read more: Apple's secret car project is far bigger than people think. Of course, it had to cut 200 jobs.
Chen told Apple that he was applying for positions within the company, but then learned that he had applied for two jobs outside the company – one of which was with a direct Chinese autonomous driving competitor. Apple suspended Chen without pay on January 11.
He was arrested one day before he was due to fly to China, allegedly visiting his sick father. Chen's attorney Daniel Olmos declined to comment when contacted by The Wall Street Journal.
Chen is the second Chinese national Apple employee to be charged with stealing trade secrets in six months.
In July, federal agents stopped former Apple employee Xiaolang Zhang at San Jose Airport after he bought a last-minute ticket to China. The FBI's indictment said he was in possession of a confidential 25-page document containing schematic drawings of a circuit board for autonomous Apple vehicles.
Xiaolang is also represented by Olmos, who said he had pleaded not guilty to theft of trade secrets.
The arrests come against the backdrop of the ongoing trade war between the US and China. On Tuesday, America formally requested the extradition of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, after charging Huawei with breaking US trade sanctions and stealing trade secrets from T-Mobile.
Apple was not immediately available for comment when contacted by Business Insider.