Alleged Theft: Former Google Engineer Accused of Pilfering AI Trade Secrets for Chinese Firms

WASHINGTON (AP) — A former Google software engineer stands accused of orchestrating a clandestine scheme to pilfer artificial intelligence (AI) trade secrets from the tech giant, while covertly collaborating with two Chinese companies, according to statements released Wednesday by the Justice Department. Linwei Ding, a Chinese national, was apprehended in Newark, California, on charges encompassing four counts of federal trade secret theft, each carrying a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison. Attorney General Merrick Garland unveiled the case against the 38-year-old Ding during an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, underscoring the persistent warnings issued by law enforcement officials regarding the perils of Chinese economic espionage and the national security implications posed by advancements in AI and related technologies.

“These charges underscore the extensive lengths to which affiliates of Chinese companies are willing to go in their pursuit of American innovation,” remarked FBI Director Christopher Wray in a statement. “Theft of groundbreaking technology and trade secrets from American enterprises can lead to job losses and have profound economic and national security repercussions.”

Google affirmed that it had identified the employee's misappropriation of "numerous documents" and promptly escalated the matter to law enforcement. "We maintain stringent safeguards to thwart the theft of our proprietary commercial information and trade secrets," stated Google spokesman Jose Castaneda. "Following an exhaustive investigation, we determined that this employee had absconded with numerous documents, and we expediently reported the case to law enforcement. We express our gratitude to the FBI for their efforts in safeguarding our information and pledge to continue our close collaboration with them.

Ding’s defense attorney, listed in legal documents, declined to comment as of Wednesday evening.

Artificial intelligence serves as the focal point of competition within the high-tech sector, with dominance in this arena carrying substantial commercial and security ramifications. Justice Department officials have been sounding the alarm in recent weeks over the potential for foreign adversaries to exploit AI technologies to the detriment of the United States. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco emphasized in a speech last month that the administration’s multi-agency Disruptive Technology Strike Force would prioritize AI at the forefront of its enforcement efforts, while Wray cautioned at a conference last week that AI and other emerging technologies have facilitated adversaries’ attempts to disrupt the American political landscape.

During the San Francisco event, Attorney General Garland emphasized on Wednesday, "As with all evolving technologies, AI has pluses and minuses, advantages and disadvantages, great promise and the risk of great harm." An indictment unveiled in the Northern District of California alleges that Linwei Ding, employed by Google since 2019 and entrusted with confidential data regarding the company’s supercomputing data centers, commenced uploading hundreds of files to a personal Google Cloud account two years ago. Prosecutors assert that shortly after the theft began, Ding was offered the role of chief technology officer at a fledgling technology firm in China, highlighting its utilization of AI technology and extending a monthly salary of approximately $14,800, coupled with an annual bonus and equity in the company. The indictment indicates Ding's travels to China, participation in investor meetings for the firm, and endeavors to secure capital for it. Additionally, Ding founded and led a startup in China, aiming to train "large AI models powered by supercomputing chips." Prosecutors allege Ding failed to disclose these affiliations to Google, which characterized him on Wednesday as a junior employee. Ding tendered his resignation from Google on December 26th. Three days later, Google officials discovered that Ding had presented as CEO of one of the Chinese companies at an investor conference in Beijing. Subsequently, upon reviewing surveillance footage, officials observed another employee scanning Ding’s access badge at the U.S.-based Google building to create the appearance of Ding's presence during times he was actually in China, according to the indictment. Google suspended Ding’s network access, locked his laptop, and uncovered his unauthorized uploads while scrutinizing his network activity history. In January, the FBI executed a search warrant at Ding’s residence, confiscating his electronic devices, and later obtained another warrant for the contents of his personal accounts, containing over 500 unique files of confidential information allegedly pilfered from Google.

In conclusion, the case of Linwei Ding underscores the significant risks posed by intellectual property theft and the clandestine collaboration with foreign entities in the realm of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence. The allegations against Ding serve as a stark reminder of the ongoing challenges faced by tech companies in safeguarding their proprietary information from exploitation by individuals with nefarious intentions. As law enforcement agencies continue to prioritize the protection of American innovation and national security, this case highlights the critical importance of robust cybersecurity measures and vigilant oversight to mitigate the potential repercussions of economic espionage.