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US charges ex-Apple engineer for trying to steal technology, fleeing to China

Apple headquarters

Apple headquarters

The US on Tuesday announced charges in five cases involving alleged efforts to steal technology to benefit China, Russia and Iran, including a former Apple Inc engineer accused of targeting the company’s technology on autonomous systems, including self-driving cars, and then fleeing to China.

The cases detailed at a Justice Department press conference centred on allegations concerning the theft of trade secrets and other technology. Two of the cases involved what US officials called procurement networks created to help Russia’s military and intelligence services obtain sensitive technology.

The five cases were the first announced by a US “strike force” formed in February in part to protect sensitive technologies, though the investigations began before it was created.

“We stand vigilant in enforcing US laws to stop the flow of sensitive technologies to our foreign adversaries,” Matt Olsen, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, told reporters. “We are committed to doing all we can to prevent these advanced tools from falling into the hands of foreign adversaries.”

The former Apple engineer, identified as 35-year-old Weibao Wang, formerly lived in Mountain View, California, and was hired by Apple in 2016, according to an April indictment unsealed on Tuesday.

In 2017, he accepted a US-based job with a Chinese company working to develop self-driving cars before resigning from Apple, but waited about four months before letting Apple know about his new job, according to the indictment.

After his last day at Apple, the company discovered that he had accessed large amounts of proprietary data in the days before his departure, the Justice Department said. Federal agents searched his home in June 2018 and found “large quantities” of data from Apple, it added. Soon after the search, he boarded a plane to China, the department said.

Apple’s automotive efforts, known as Project Titan, have proceeded unevenly since 2014, when the company started to design a vehicle from scratch. A December report said Apple had postponed the car’s planned launch to 2026. Reports filed with the state of California show Apple is testing vehicles on the state’s roads. Apple declined to comment on the case.

In a second case related to China, US prosecutors announced charges against Liming Li, 64, of Rancho Cucamonga, California, for allegedly stealing trade secrets from his California-based employers to build his own competing business in China.

Prosecutors in New York charged Nikolaos “Nikos” Bogonikolos, 49, of Greece with smuggling US-origin military technologies to Russia while he was operating as a defence contractor for Nato.

Russian nationals Oleg Sergeyevich Patsulya and Vasilii Sergeyevich Besedin were each charged in Arizona for allegedly using their Florida-based company to send aircraft parts to Russian airline companies, while the Commerce Department in a parallel action suspended their export privileges.

In addition, prosecutors in New York announced charges against Xiangjiang Qiao, also known as Joe Hansen, 39, for allegedly using a Chinese company that is the target of American sanctions to provide materials used in the production of weapons of mass destruction to Iran.

Qiao and Wang remain at large in China, while the other four defendants were arrested, US officials said. Lawyers for Patsulya and Besedin, who were arrested on May 11, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A lawyer for Li did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Reuters could not determine who is representing Bogonikolos.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, the Justice Department’s No 2 official, in February called the newly formed strike force a joint effort with the US Commerce Department to safeguard American technology from foreign adversaries and other national security threats.

The Commerce Department last year imposed new export controls on advanced computing and semiconductor components in a manoeuvre designed to prevent China from acquiring certain chips. The United States and a coalition of 37 other countries also imposed export controls on Russia over the past year in response to its invasion of Ukraine.

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