Google engineer caught stealing AI tech secrets for Chinese firms


The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) has announced the unsealing of an indictment against Linwei (Leon) Ding, 38, a former software engineer at Google, suspected of stealing Google AI trade secrets for Chinese companies.

The charges allege that Ding stole proprietary information about Google’s artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and transferred it to two companies based in China, where he secretly worked.

The allegedly stolen trade secrets involve crucial technology underpinning Google’s advanced supercomputing data centers, which are essential for training and hosting large AI models capable of processing nuanced language and generating intelligent responses.

The indictment says that Ding stole proprietary information on hardware and software platforms, including:

  • The architecture and functionality of GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) and TPU (Tensor Processing Unit) chips and systems.
  • Software that allows these chips to communicate and execute tasks.
  • The Cluster Management System (CMS) that orchestrates thousands of chips into a supercomputer capable of executing machine learning and AI technology at the cutting edge.

Covert data theft

The DOJ says Ding started working as a software engineer at Google in 2019 and began uploading proprietary data to a personal Google Cloud account on May 21, 2022. This process continued for nearly a year, resulting in over five hundred files being stolen.

Ding copied Google source files into Apple Notes on his Google-issued laptop to conceal his actions and converted them into PDF files before uploading them to his Google Cloud account.

According to the indictment, Ding transferred the files containing confidential information to China, specifically an AI company he affiliated with by taking up the position of Chief Technology Officer and a second firm he founded named Shanghai Zhisuan Technology Co.

Ding did not inform Google about his affiliations with these companies and failed to disclose his travels to participate in investor meetings in China.

On the contrary, Ding allegedly asked a colleague to periodically scan his entrance badge to make it appear that he was working from the U.S. Google office while he was in China.

Even after Google detected the unauthorized data transfer activity, Ding responded by lying to a firm’s investigator, alleging that he uploaded files to his personal account to use as evidence of the work he conducted at the firm.

He even signed a Self-Deletion Affidavit stating he had permanently deleted all non-public information from Google outside the scope of his employment, which was untrue.

Ding was arrested on March 5, 2024, in California and now faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison plus a fine of up to $250,000 for each count of trade secret theft ($1 million in total).

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