Ex-google engineer charged for stealing ai secrets, working with Chinese firms

A former Google software engineer has been charged over the theft of trade secrets from the Alphabet company whilst working covertly with two other firms based in China.

Linwei Ding, also known as Leon Ding, was charged this week by a federal jury in San Francisco on four counts of trade secret theft, which could see the Chinese national punished with up to 10 years in prison. In addition, Ding could be hit with a fine of $250,000 for each count.

The indictment revealed the 38-year-old stole detailed information regarding the hardware infrastructure and software capability that enables Google’s vast data centers to train artificial intelligence (AI) models via machine learning.

Thanks to his position, Ding was able to leak this extensive knowledge on chips and systems, including blueprints designed to gain leverage over cloud rivals Amazon and Microsoft (which design their own), as well as to reduce reliance on GPUs from Nvidia.

How have authorities responded to the charge?

The case against Ding was announced at a press conference hosted by the American Bar Association in San Francisco, with various law enforcement figures present, including Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director, Christopher Wray.

“The Justice Department just will not tolerate the theft of our trade secrets and intelligence,” implored Garland.

“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,” stated Wray.

“The theft of innovative technology and trade secrets from American companies can cost jobs and have devastating economic and national security consequences.”

This development comes just over 12 months after the Biden administration instigated a multiagency Disruptive Technology Strike Force to help prevent advanced technology from falling into the reach of countries such as China and Russia, or any similar activity which would threaten national security.

AI is thought to be at the top of the DTSF enforcement priority list, such is the importance of the technology in the battlefield of competition between major nation-state actors. This was alluded to by Attorney General Garland who added, “As with all evolving technologies, AI has pluses and minuses, advantages and disadvantages, great promise and the risk of great harm.”

Ding was first hired by Google in 2019, then three years later he allegedly began his nefarious thefts at the same time he was supposedly being headhunted for a senior position at a Chinese tech startup.

By mid-2023, he had uploaded more than 500 confidential files belonging to Google but by the end of the year, the tech giant had become suspicious, taking away his laptop on 4 January 2024, one day prior to the date he intended to resign his position.

Image credit: Brett Jordan/Pexels

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Graeme Hanna