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Ex-Google Software Engineer Stole AI Secrets, Feds Say

By Andrew Karpan · 2024-03-06 21:22:21 -0500 ·

A former Google software engineer was arrested Wednesday on accusations he illegally downloaded alleged trade secrets involving machine learning and taking them to startups he was involved with in China, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Early Wednesday morning, the FBI arrested Linwei Ding, also known as Leon Ding, at his home in the Alameda County town of Newark, California, a day after prosecutors got a grand jury to sign off on an indictment connecting Ding to a scheme to steal various downloadable chip architecture and software design specifications on behalf of a pair of companies based in Beijing and Shanghai.

"The Justice Department will not tolerate the theft of artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies that could put our national security at risk," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement released following an appearance at an American Bar Association event in San Francisco.

Ding had been working for Google as a software engineer since 2019. According to the indictment, starting in 2022, he began secretly uploading "more than 500 unique files" by "copying data from the Google source files into the Apple Notes application on his Google-issued MacBook laptop."

Around this time, prosecutors say, Ding started communicating with leadership at a startup called Beijing Rongshu Lianzhi Technology, which offered him an executive slot there with a monthly salary of approximately $14,800. Soon after, Ding began visiting China and was spotted at investor meetings to raise capital for Rongshu, according to prosecutors.

By 2023, Ding had started his own startup in China, called Shanghai Zhisuan Technology, which the indictment described as "a startup company that proposed to develop a [cluster management system] that could accelerate machine learning workloads, including training large AI models powered by supercomputing chips."

Among those that had invested in Ding's operations, prosecutors singled out one: a Chinese venture capital operation called MiraclePlus, which authorities said bought a 7% ownership interest in Zhisuan.

All the while, Ding had remained employed by Google.

The tech company only began to hear word of Ding's alleged double-dealing when the company found out, in the waning days of last year, that Ding "presented as the CEO of Zhisuan at the MiraclePlus investor conference in Beijing," according to the indictment. Looking through the company's own surveillance tapes, security employees at Google discovered that "another employee scann[ed] Ding's access badge on December 4, 6, and 8, 2023, making it appear as though Ding had been working from his U.S. Google office on those dates when in fact Ding was in [China]," the indictment said.

"The employee who scanned Ding's badge stated to Google that Ding had asked him/her to periodically scan his badge while he was traveling to make it appear as though he was working from his office," reads the indictment, which does not name the worker. 

"After an investigation, we found that this employee stole numerous documents, and we quickly referred the case to law enforcement," read a statement from Google spokesperson Jose Castaneda on the matter.

Representatives for Ding could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The government is represented by Ismail Ramsey, Casey Boome and Laura Vartain Horn of the U.S. Attorney's Office of the Northern District of California.

Counsel information for Linwei Ding was not available Wednesday.

The case is USA v. Linwei Ding aka Leon Ding, case number 3:24-cr-00141, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

--Editing by Michael Watanabe.

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