Mar 6, 2024 - Technology

Ex-Google engineer charged with stealing AI trade secrets

Photo illustration of a Google logo on a smartphone screen

Photo Illustration: Mateusz Slodkowski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

A former Google software engineer, Linwei Ding, has been indicted on charges of stealing AI technology secrets from the company to pass to two Chinese companies, the Department of Justice said Wednesday.

Why it matters: Intelligence and defense officials have been warning for a year that China and other adversaries have ramped up their attempts to obtain American intellectual property and to use AI against American interests.

What's happening: Ding was charged in federal court in California with four counts of federal trade secret theft, each punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

  • The thefts of "over 500 confidential files containing AI trade secrets" are thought to have occurred at supercomputing data centers owned by Alphabet, Google's parent company.
  • Ding was employed by Google from 2019, and the thefts are said to have occurred starting in 2022.
  • Google referred the case to the FBI after an internal investigation.

The intrigue: Ding is alleged to have stolen the files by uploading them to a personal Google Cloud account, the DOJ said.

  • He was offered a chief technology officer role at a Chinese AI startup within weeks of the beginning of the alleged thefts, and founded another AI startup hoping to train "large AI models powered by supercomputing chips," per the indictment.

Behind the scenes: The DOJ's Disruptive Technology Strike Force has elevated AI enforcement to the top of its priority list.

What they're saying: Attorney General Merrick Garland, speaking at an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco, said that the DOJ "will not tolerate the theft of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies that could put our national security at risk."

  • "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.
  • "We have strict safeguards to prevent the theft of our confidential commercial information and trade secrets. 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 cooperating with them closely," José Castañeda, a Google spokesperson, told Axios.
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