Former Google engineer charged with stealing AI tech while secretly working with Chinese firms


A former software engineer at Google has been charged with stealing artificial intelligence technology from the company while secretly working with two companies based in China, the U.S. Justice Department said Wednesday.

Linwei Ding, a Chinese national, was arrested in Newark, Calif., on four counts of federal trade secret theft, each punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The case against Ding was being announced at an American Bar Association Conference in San Francisco by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who along with other law enforcement leaders has repeatedly warned about the threat of Chinese economic espionage and about the national security concerns posed by advancements in artificial intelligence.

“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.

“The theft of innovative technology and trade secrets from American companies can cost jobs and have devastating economic and national security consequences.”

Ding uploaded files to personal account: indictment

U.S. Justice Department leaders in recent weeks have been sounding alarms about how foreign adversaries could harness AI technologies to negatively affect the United States.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a speech last month that the administration’s multi-agency Disruptive Technology Strike Force would place AI enforcement at the top of its priority list. Wray told business leaders at an event last week that AI and other emerging technologies had made it easier for adversaries to try to interfere with the U.S. political process.

WATCH | Canadian court bars Chinese student over spying concerns: 

Federal court bars Chinese student over espionage risk concerns

A Federal Court judge has barred a Chinese engineering student from studying in Canada, over concerns the engineering student could be pressured by his government into spying. Experts say there could be more similar cases to come.

An indictment unsealed Wednesday in the Northern District of California alleges that Ding, who was hired by Google in 2019 and had access to confidential information about the company’s supercomputing data centres, began uploading hundreds of files into a personal Google Cloud account two years ago.

Held exec roles while working for Google

Three people walk by a large building with the Google logo on it.
People walk in Google’s main campus in Mountain View, Calif., on May 1, 2019. Ding was offered the position of chief technology officer at an early-stage technology company in China. He also separately founded and served as chief executive of a China-based startup company. He did not disclose either affiliation to Google. (Amy Osborne/AFP/Getty Images)

Within weeks of the theft starting, prosecutors say, Ding was offered the position of chief technology officer at an early-stage technology company in China that touted its use of AI technology. The indictment says Ding traveled to China and participated in investor meetings at the company and sought to raise capital for it. 

He also separately founded and served as chief executive of a China-based startup company that aspired to train “large AI models powered by supercomputing chips,” the indictment said. 

Prosecutors say Ding did not disclose either affiliation to Google.

He resigned from the company on Dec. 26. Three days later, Google officials learned that he had presented as CEO of one of the Chinese companies at an investor conference in Beijing. Officials also reviewed surveillance showing that another employee had scanned Ding’s access badge at the building where he worked to make it look like Ding was there during times when he was actually in China, the indictment says.

It was not immediately clear whether Ding, 38, had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf.

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