Ex-Google Employee Caught Stealing AI Tech for China 

Ice stocker / shutterstock.com
Ice stocker / shutterstock.com

A former software engineer at Google, Linwei Ding, has been accused of stealing the company’s artificial intelligence (AI) secrets while working secretly with two Chinese-based firms. Ding, a 38-year-old Chinese national, was arrested in Newark, California, and faces serious charges that could lead to a decade in prison for each count of trade secret theft.  

Ding joined Google in 2019 as a software engineer. With authorized access to sensitive information regarding the company’s supercomputing data centers, he spent two years transferring hundreds of files to his personal Google Cloud account using methods designed to bypass Google’s data loss prevention systems. 

While still working at Google, Ding reportedly attempted to conceal his actions using his personal Google account. According to court documents, Ding informed a Google investigator that he uploaded the files to his personal account to serve as evidence of his work at Google.  

In December 2023, Google discovered Ding’s effort to transfer additional files from the company’s network to his personal account. He allegedly stole more than 500 confidential files containing Google AI trade secrets. 

According to U.S. Attorney Ismail Ramsey, the information Ding allegedly stole involves both Google’s hardware infrastructure and AI software platform. Ramsey explained in a video statement that the stolen data primarily relates to the technology used in Google’s supercomputing data centers to train large AI models using machine learning techniques. 

Shortly after the theft began, prosecutors allege that Ding was offered the position of chief technology officer at an emerging Chinese AI technology firm. The offer included a monthly salary of approximately $14,800, an annual bonus, and a slice of the company’s stock. Ding traveled to China, attended investor meetings, and actively sought capital to fuel the company’s growth. 

Despite reassurances that he had no plans to leave the company, Ding purchased a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Beijing, scheduled for departure on January 7, as per prosecutors. On December 26, Ding resigned from Google. During Google’s investigation, it was discovered that Ding had presented at a conference in Beijing in late November. Multiple times in December, Ding had another Google employee scan his access badge at a building where he worked, making him appear in the United States even though he was in China. 

Ding is additionally charged with establishing Shanghai Zhisuan Technology Co., where he held the position of chief executive officer. According to Ramsey, one of the company’s objectives was to replicate and enhance the Google platform using the stolen technology. 

Artificial intelligence is a crucial battleground in high-tech competition, significantly impacting business and security. Recently, leaders in the Justice Department have warned about the risks of foreign adversaries using AI to harm the United States, and this case highlights worries about Chinese economic espionage and its risks to national security.  

A comprehensive approach involving legal frameworks, intelligence efforts, public-private collaboration, and international cooperation is vital to safeguarding against economic espionage and protecting critical U.S. interests. The Economic Espionage Act of 1996 serves as a crucial law, criminalizing trade secret misappropriation and enabling the government to prosecute offenders with penalties such as prison terms and significant fines. The U.S. Department of Justice actively investigates and prosecutes economic espionage cases to deter potential perpetrators. 

The National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) and the FBI play pivotal roles in identifying and countering economic espionage threats, collaborating closely with private sector partners to enhance security measures. Efforts to raise awareness about economic espionage risks through campaigns, training programs, and public outreach initiatives are essential, focusing on developing robust insider threat programs within companies. 

Recognizing the necessity for collective action, the U.S. government collaborates with private companies to share threat intelligence and best practices. Initiatives like the National Insider Threat Task Force address insider threats specifically. Additionally, international cooperation is crucial, as economic espionage is a global issue. Diplomatic efforts focus on promoting responsible behavior in cyberspace and discouraging state-sponsored theft of intellectual property, highlighting the importance of international norms and cooperation in combating economic espionage. 

But FBI Director Christopher Wray warns it’s not enough. “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,” Wray said in a statement, going on to note that The theft of innovative technology and trade secrets costs jobs and has “devastating economic and national security consequences.” 

Even though thousands of Chinese nationalists, mostly military-aged males, are crossing the border into the U.S., China’s war on America will be fought in cyberspace, not on the battlefield.