Google engineer indicted over allegedly stealing AI trade secrets for China

The FBI symbol atop a red, black and white background made of seven pointed stars.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

A federal grand jury has indicted a Google engineer, Linwei Ding, aka Leon Ding, for allegedly stealing trade secrets around Google’s AI chip software and hardware on March 5th, before he was arrested Wednesday morning in Newark, California. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said in a statement that Ding “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.”

Much of the stolen data allegedly revolves around Google’s tensor processing unit (TPU) chips. Google’s TPU chips power many of its AI workloads and, in conjunction with Nvidia GPUs, can train and run AI models like Gemini. The company has also offered access to the chips through partner platforms like Hugging Face.

Table listing stolen technology linked to Google TPUs, GPUs, and supercomputing data centers.
Image: Justice Department

Software designs for both the v4 and v6 TPU chips, hardware and software specifications for GPUs used in Google’s data center, and designs for Google’s machine learning workloads in data centers are among the allegedly stolen files.

Amid a growing arms race around AI technology and US government efforts to ban China from accessing chips built for AI, some Chinese companies have turned to local chip producers to power AI platforms. Late last year, intelligence chiefs of the so-called Five Eyes alliance of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand warned US tech companies about companies in China potentially stealing intellectual property related to AI, quantum computing, and robotics.

The government accuses Ding of transferring those files to a personal Google Cloud account between May 2022 and May 2023.

He allegedly did so “by copying data from the Google source files into the Apple Notes application on his Google-issued MacBook laptop,” and then converting them from Apple Notes to PDFs to avoid detection by Google’s “data loss prevention systems.”

The government says that less than a month after he began stealing files, a Chinese machine learning company named Rongshu offered to make him CTO, he flew to China for five months to raise funds for the company, and he subsequently founded and led a machine learning startup named Zhisuan, all while still working for Google. He resigned from Google in December 2023 — and reportedly booked a one-way ticket to Beijing scheduled to depart two days past his end date — after the company began asking him about his uploads.

The DOJ also claims that in December 2023, he allegedly faked being present at Google’s office in the US by having another employee scan his badge at the door while he was actually in China. Ding has been charged with four counts of theft of trade secrets, so he’s facing up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count if convicted.