Ex-Google Engineer Arrested, Charged With Stealing AI Trade Secrets for China
Ex-Google Engineer Arrested, Charged With Stealing AI Trade Secrets for China

By Eva Fu

A former Google software engineer has been indicted on charges of stealing artificial intelligence-related trade secrets while working for Chinese competitors seeking to gain an edge in the AI race.

Linwei Ding, a Chinese national who also goes by Leon, was charged by a federal grand jury in San Francisco with four counts of trade secret theft, each punishable by up to 10 years in prison. He was arrested on March 6 in Newark, California, where he lives.

The 38-year-old allegedly stole more than 500 files containing confidential information between May 2022 and May 2023, including detailed information about the hardware infrastructure and software platforms allowing Google’s supercomputing data centers to train large AI models through machine learning, according to the indictment.

Within weeks after Mr. Ding began the theft activity, the indictment said, an early-stage Chinese company with a focus on AI offered to make him its chief technology officer. The position came with a monthly salary of about $14,800 with an annual bonus and company stock.

In October 2022, Mr. Ding traveled to China and stayed there until the following March, participating in investor meetings to raise capital for the firm, Beijing Rongshu Lianzhi Technology.

In May 2023, he founded an AI startup in Shanghai.

“We have experience with Google’s ten-thousand-card computational power platform; we just need to replicate and upgrade it—and then further develop a computational power platform suited to China’s national conditions,” he stated in a document promoting his company on the China-based social media platform WeChat.

He also had another Google employee scan his access badge on three separate days in December 2023 to create the impression that he was working from the U.S. Google office when, in fact, he was in China, the Google investigators found after examining surveillance footage.

Mr. Ding initially managed to evade Google’s detection by copying the Google data into the Apple Notes application on his Google-issued MacBook then converting it into PDF to upload to his personal Google Cloud account.

But in December 2023, when he uploaded additional files from the Google network to another personal account while in China, Google became suspicious.

He then told a Google investigator that he had intended to use the information as evidence of the work that he had done at Google, according to the indictment.

Mr. Ding didn’t disclose either of his affiliations with China-based firms to Google, prosecutors said.

Less than a week later, he booked a one-way ticket to Beijing slated to depart on Jan. 7. He then resigned from Google on Dec. 26.

Google retrieved Mr. Ding’s Google laptop and mobile device from his home the day before his planned last day at the company, Jan. 5.

Stealing US Innovation

Items displayed in the Google Store at the Google Visitor Experience in Mountain View, Calif., on Oct. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Attorney General Merrick Garland disclosed the details of the case at an American Bar Association Conference in San Francisco on March 6.

“We will fiercely protect sensitive technologies developed in America from falling into the hands of those who should not have them,” he said.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the charges were “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.”

“The theft of innovative technology and trade secrets from American companies can cost jobs and have devastating economic and national security consequences,” he said in a statement.

The interagency Disruptive Technology Strike Force that partook in the case was set up by the Department of Justice and the Department of Commerce last year with an eye on threats of China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party’s exploiting U.S. innovations for its military development.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco in a speech last month said that AI is a top priority for the task force, describing it as the “ultimate disruptive technology.”

Mr. Wray, in a late February national security conference, also warned about the danger of generative AI in “making it easier for both more and less-sophisticated foreign adversaries to engage in malign influence” and interference with the U.S. political process.

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