Google engineer charged with stealing AI secrets while working for Chinese groups

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A Chinese man who worked as a software engineer at Google in California has been charged by the US justice department with stealing artificial intelligence trade secrets from the technology giant while covertly working for rival China-based companies.

Ding Linwei, a 38-year-old Chinese national, was hired by Google in 2019 to work on the software used in its supercomputing data centres. The indictment, which was unsealed in a California federal court on Wednesday, alleged that Ding “began secretly uploading trade secrets that were stored in Google’s network” between May 2022 and May 2023, “by which time Ding allegedly uploaded more than 500 unique files containing confidential information”.

The technology Ding allegedly stole involved the “building blocks” of Google’s AI infrastructure, prosecutors said. As an employee, Ding had been granted access to Google’s “confidential information related to the hardware infrastructure, the software platform and the AI models and applications they supported”, according to a press release announcing the indictment.

Ding was arrested on Wednesday in Newark, California, and charged with four counts of theft of trade secrets. He faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 for each count if convicted.

“We have strict safeguards to prevent the theft of our confidential commercial information and trade secrets,” Google said in a statement. “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 co-operating with them closely.”

Google is among the Big Tech groups investing tens billions of dollars to develop generative AI products that have the potential to transform technology and other industries. An arms race for AI dominance kicked off last year when Microsoft invested $10bn in OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT.

The case also comes as tensions have increased over Silicon Valley’s links to China. The Biden administration has moved to ban some US investment into China’s quantum computing, advanced chips and AI sectors in an effort to stop the Chinese military from accessing American technology and capital. It will largely affect private equity and venture capital firms. In advance of that, some US investors with large operations in the country, such as Sequoia Capital and GGV Capital, have spun off their Chinese businesses. 

The US attorney’s office in San Francisco in recent years charged three former Apple employees with stealing trade secrets related to self-driving car technology for Chinese companies.

“Today’s charges are the latest illustration of the lengths affiliates of companies based in the People’s Republic of China are willing to go to steal American innovation,” FBI director Christopher Wray said in a statement.

During his employment at Google, Ding secretly affiliated himself with two China-based tech companies, according to the indictment. It alleged he helped raise capital for one of the companies during a five-month trip to China in late 2022. Potential investors were told he was offered the position of its chief technology officer and owned 20 per cent of its stock, prosecutors said.

He also allegedly founded his own AI and machine learning company and applied to a China-based incubation programme. Ding travelled to Beijing to present his company at an investor conference in November, prosecutors said.

The indictment stated that he took steps to evade detection by Google’s data loss prevention systems, and also permitted another Google employee to use his work access badge to scan into a Google building, making it appear as if he was working from the US Google office when he was in China.

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