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

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A former Google software engineer, Linwei Ding, also known as Leon, has been indicted for allegedly stealing artificial intelligence-related trade secrets to benefit Chinese competitors in the AI race.

Ding faces four counts of trade secret theft, each carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. He was arrested in Newark, California, where he resides.

The indictment alleges that Ding unlawfully obtained over 500 files containing confidential information between May 2022 and May 2023, including intricate details about Google’s supercomputing data center infrastructure and software platforms used for training large AI models through machine learning.

Shortly after Mr. Ding commenced his theft activities, the indictment revealed that he was approached by a budding Chinese company specializing in AI to serve as its chief technology officer. This role came with a monthly salary of approximately $14,800, along with an annual bonus and company stock.

From October 2022 to March of the following year, Mr. Ding journeyed to China and remained there, engaging in investor meetings aimed at securing funding for Beijing Rongshu Lianzhi Technology.

In May 2023, he established 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.

The Google investigators discovered that Mr. Ding had a fellow Google employee scan his access badge on three occasions in December 2023 to give the false impression that he was working from the U.S. office while he was actually in China.

Initially, Mr. Ding managed to avoid detection by copying Google data onto his Google-issued MacBook and then converting it into PDFs, which he uploaded to his personal Google Cloud account. However, when he uploaded more files from the Google network to another personal account while in China, Google grew suspicious.

When questioned by a Google investigator, Mr. Ding claimed he had intended to use the information as proof of his work at Google. He failed to disclose his connections with Chinese firms to Google, according to prosecutors.

Shortly after booking a one-way ticket to Beijing set for Jan. 7, Mr. Ding resigned from Google on Dec. 26. The company retrieved his laptop and mobile device from his home the day before his planned departure on Jan. 5.

Attorney General Merrick Garland revealed the specifics of the case during a presentation at an American Bar Association Conference in San Francisco on March 6th.

“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.

Last year, the Department of Justice and the Department of Commerce established the interagency Disruptive Technology Strike Force to address concerns about China’s exploitation of U.S. innovations for military purposes.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco emphasized the importance of artificial intelligence (AI) as a key focus for the task force, referring to it as the “ultimate disruptive technology” in a speech last month.

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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