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Former Google engineer stole confidential AI information for Chinese company, feds say

A Google logo in colorful letters on a glass-walled building, with trees nearby.
A federal grand jury indicted a former Google engineer on Tuesday, accusing him of stealing trade secrets related to artificial intelligence for companies based in China. | Source: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A federal grand jury indicted a former Google engineer on Tuesday, accusing him of stealing trade secrets related to artificial intelligence for companies based in China.

Linwei Ding, also known as Leon Ding, was charged with four counts of theft of trade secrets in an indictment unsealed on Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California announced. The 38-year-old Chinese citizen is accused of uploading over 500 confidential files containing sensitive Google information to his personal accounts from May 2022 to May 2023.

Ding was arrested Wednesday morning in Newark, a city in the East Bay. He is scheduled to appear in court on April 24, the office said.

“By stealing Google’s trade secrets about its artificial intelligence supercomputing systems, Ding gave himself and the companies that he affiliated with in the [People's Republic of China] an unfair competitive advantage,” U.S. Attorney Ismail Ramsey said in a statement. “This office is committed to protecting the innovation of our Silicon Valley companies. To that end, we will aggressively investigate and prosecute the theft of sensitive trade secrets by insiders like Ding, particularly when the theft endeavors to jump-start illegitimate competition.”

Federal prosecutors said Ding was employed as a software engineer at Google beginning in 2019 and had access to the tech giant's confidential data on hardware infrastructure, software platforms and AI models. The indictment alleges Ding took measures to cover up his theft, such as converting files into PDFs to bypass security systems.

Ding is also accused of traveling to China and participating in meetings for an AI startup with potential investors who were told he was the chief technology officer and owned 20% of company stock. A document from the startup quoted in the indictment stated the company intended to "replicate and upgrade" Google's computing platform.

When questioned by Google investigators on Dec. 8, 2023, Ding told them he had uploaded the files to his personal accounts to use as examples of the work he had done for the company, according to the indictment. Prosecutors said Ding assured the company that he was not planning on leaving.

Less than a week later, however, Ding booked a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Beijing and then resigned from his position on Dec. 26, 2023, according to court documents. The FBI served search warrants at Ding’s home on Jan. 6 and Jan. 13 and discovered an account with over 500 files of confidential Google information.

In a statement provided to The Standard, Google spokesperson José Castañeda said the company tipped off law enforcement about Ding after discovering the alleged theft.

“We have strict safeguards to prevent the theft of our confidential commercial information and trade secrets,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement provided to The Standard. “We are grateful to the FBI for helping protect our information and will continue cooperating with them closely.”

Ding faces up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines per charge if convicted.