Former Google engineer charged with stealing Google’s AI secrets while working with two Chinese AI startups

A former Google software engineer has been charged for allegedly stealing artificial intelligence trade secrets from the tech giant while secretly working for two Chinese AI startups located in China without Google’s knowledge, the Justice Department (DOJ) announced on Wednesday.

Linwei Ding, a Chinese national, was arrested in Newark, California. He now faces charges of federal trade secret theft, with each count carrying a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison. The Justice Department accused Ding, 38, of pilfering over 500 confidential files relating to AI infrastructure while covertly engaged with two Chinese AI startups during his time at Google

Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the case against Ding during a conference held by the American Bar Association in San Francisco. Garland, along with other law enforcement officials, has been vocal about the dangers of Chinese economic espionage and the potential national security risks associated with advancements in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.

“The Justice Department will not tolerate the theft of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies that could put our national security at risk,” said Attorney General Garland. “In this case, we allege the defendant stole artificial intelligence-related trade secrets from Google while secretly working for two companies based in China. We will fiercely protect sensitive technologies developed in America from falling into the hands of those who should not have them,” DOJ said in a press release.

“While we work to responsibly harness the benefits of AI, the Justice Department is on high alert to its risks, including global threats to our national security,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. “As alleged in today’s charges, the defendant stole from Google over 500 confidential files containing AI trade secrets, while covertly working for China-based companies seeking an edge in the AI technology race. The Justice Department will relentlessly pursue and hold accountable those who would siphon disruptive technologies – especially AI – for unlawful export.”

Linwei Ding’s LinkedIn profile

Linwei Ding, who specialized in Google’s AI supercomputing systems, allegedly uploaded two years’ worth of sensitive data to his personal Google Cloud account. In a shocking twist, he was clandestinely appointed as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of a Beijing-based AI startup and even founded his own AI firm in Shanghai, all while concealing these activities from Google.

To add another layer to his deception, Ding reportedly had a Google colleague scan his access badge at the company’s U.S. office, creating a facade that he was physically present in the United States when, in reality, he was operating from China. Google’s suspicions were aroused, prompting them to alert the FBI, ultimately leading to Ding’s arrest.

“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.”

The case not only sheds light on the extent of China’s aggressive pursuit of U.S. AI technology but also serves as a chilling preview of the high-stakes espionage anticipated in the escalating battle for AI supremacy.

Google’s internal investigation revealed the leak of confidential information, uncovering that Ding had been surreptitiously uploading hundreds of files to his personal Google Cloud account for more than two years. Prosecutors allege that Ding swiftly secured the position of CTO at a Chinese AI startup within weeks of commencing the theft. Additionally, he founded his own startup in China, focusing on training large AI models powered by supercomputing chips.

The FBI, acting on Google’s suspicions, seized Ding’s electronic devices, revealing more than 500 unique files of confidential information stolen from the tech giant. This insider heist underscores the urgent need to address China’s relentless efforts to close the gap in the U.S. AI tech advantage, hinting at the complex and high-stakes landscape of industrial espionage in the AI arena.