FBI accuses ex-Google staffer of stealing AI secrets for China

A former software engineer at Google has been charged with stealing artificial intelligence trade secrets from the company while secretly working with two companies based in China, the US Justice Department says.

Photo: Jaap Arriens / Sipa USA)

Photo: Jaap Arriens / Sipa USA)

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

The case against Ding, 38, was announced at an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco by Attorney-General Merrick Garland, who has repeatedly warned about the threat of Chinese economic espionage and about the national security concerns posed by advancements in artificial intelligence and other developing technologies.

“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.”

Google said it had determined the employee had stolen “numerous documents” and referred the matter to law enforcement.

“We have strict safeguards to prevent the theft of our confidential commercial information and trade secrets,” Google spokesman Jose Castaneda said in a statement.

“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 co-operating with them closely.”

AI is the main battleground for competitors in the field of high technology, and the question of who dominates can have major commercial and security implications.

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

The indictment unsealed on 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.

Within weeks of the theft starting, prosecutors said, Ding was offered the position of chief technology officer at an early-stage technology company in China that touted its use of AI technology and that offered him a monthly salary of about $US14,800, plus an annual bonus and company stock.

The indictment said Ding travelled to China and took part 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 start-up company that aspired to train “large AI models powered by supercomputing chips”, the indictment said.

Prosecutors said Ding did not disclose either affiliation to Google, who described him as a junior employee.

He resigned from Google last December 26.

Three days later, Google officials learned that he had presented as chief executive of one of the Chinese companies at an investor conference in Beijing.


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