Chinese Government Arrested Ex-Google Engineer for Stealing AI Technology Secrets

A 38-year-old Chinese national and California resident has been charged by the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) for allegedly stealing confidential Google data while working undercover for two Chinese tech companies.

“Transferred sensitive Google trade secrets and other confidential information from Google's network to his account while secretly affiliating himself with PRC-based companies in the AI industry," according to the Department of Justice, is what happened to Linwei Ding, also known as Leon Ding, a former Google engineer who was arrested on March 6, 2024.

In an attempt to provide two unidentified Chinese enterprises an advantage in the continuing AI race, the defendant is accused of stealing more than 500 secret Google files holding trade secrets related to artificial intelligence (AI).

U.S. Attorney Ismail Ramsey stated, "Linwei Ding was working covertly to enrich himself and two companies based in the People's Republic of China while he was employed as a software engineer at Google.”

“Ding gave himself and the companies he affiliated with in the PRC an unfair competitive advantage by stealing Google's trade secrets about its artificial intelligence supercomputing systems.”

Ding, a software engineer who joined Google in 2019, is charged with stealing confidential data about the company's supercomputing data center infrastructure—which is used to run AI models—the Cluster Management System (CMS) software, which is used to manage the data centers, and the AI models and applications that are supported by them.

The indictment said that the theft occurred to a personal Google Cloud account between May 21, 2022, and May 2, 2023, and that Ding had covertly associated himself with two Chinese IT organizations.

This included one company where he was offered the chief technology officer post sometime in June 2022 and another that Ding started and served as the chief executive officer of by no later than May 30, 2023.

The DoJ said that Ding's business had made significant progress in creating a software platform to speed up machine learning tasks, such as training massive AI models.

“We have expertise with Google's ten-thousand-card computational power platform; we just need to reproduce and update it - and then further construct a computational power platform appropriate to China's national conditions," according to a document about Ding's startup company.”

However, in an intriguing detour, Ding allegedly copied the information from Google source files into the Apple Notes software on his MacBook, which the company provided, and then converted the notes to PDF files before uploading them to their Google account to hide the theft of trade secrets.

In addition, it has been reported that Ding gave the impression that he was working from his Google office in the United States when, in reality, he was in China in December 2023 by allowing another Google employee to scan the entrance of a Google building using his access badge that Google supplied. December 26, 2023, was his last day of employment at Google.

Ding is facing four charges related to trade secret theft. He could be sentenced to a maximum of 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000 for each count if found guilty.

This comes days after David Franklin Slater, a civilian employee of the U.S. Air Force assigned to the U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), was detained and charged by the Department of Justice (DoJ) for communicating classified material on a foreign online dating platform between February and April 2022.

Among the data were Russian military capabilities and military targets related to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, as well as National Defense Information (NDI). It is reported to have been sent using the messaging service of a dating website to a co-conspirator who identified herself as a female resident of Ukraine.

According to the Department of Justice, “Slater willfully, improperly, and unlawfully transmitted NDI classified as 'SECRET,' which he had reason to believe could be used to the advantage of a foreign nation or the harm of the United States, to a person not authorized to receive such information, on a foreign online dating platform.”

For each count of conspiracy to send and transmission of NDI, Slater, 63, is subject to a maximum monetary penalty of $250,000, three years of supervised release, and up to ten years in prison. Nothing is known about the person assuming the identity of a Ukrainian woman, including her true motivations.