Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime , Governance & Risk Management

Ex-Google Exec Charged With AI Trade Secret Theft

Ding Accused of Stealing Data on 'Brain' of Google's Supercomputing Data Centers
Ex-Google Exec Charged With AI Trade Secret Theft
Image: Shutterstock

Linwei Ding, a Chinese national known as Leon Ding to his tech colleagues in Silicon Valley, built an impressive resume during his short time at Google. He joined the tech giant in 2019 as a software engineer and became CTO in 2022. He was on a leading-edge team developing software in the company's data centers for supercomputer clusters that enable GPUs to function efficiently for machine learning and AI applications.

See Also: Steps to Get Ahead of Insider Threats

Ding, 38, had access to confidential information about hardware infrastructure, the software platform, and the AI models and applications they supported - all core to the company's AI and cloud offerings. Federal authorities, in an indictment unsealed Wednesday, said Ding abused that trust by stealing Google's proprietary technology and sharing it with Chinese companies.

Prosecutors accused Ding of transferring more than 500 files containing Google's AI trade secrets and other confidential information from the company network to his personal account while covertly affiliating himself with two China-based companies that sought an "edge in the AI technology race," the Department of Justice announcement says.

Authorities arrested the California resident on Wednesday in Newark, New Jew Jersey, before the federal grand jury indicted him on four counts of theft of trade secrets. If convicted, Ding faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count.

"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. She added that the agency will "relentlessly pursue" those who siphon disruptive technologies, especially AI, for unlawful export.

Secret Double Life in US, China

The law enforcement action comes at a time when the race to establish AI dominance has led to heated competition between the U.S. and China. Both nations see AI as crucial for obtaining future economic and military power.

Among the data stolen was the Cluster Management System, aka the "brain" of Google's supercomputing data centers that organizes, prioritizes and assigns tasks to the hardware infrastructure, allowing advanced chips to function efficiently when executing machine learning workloads or hosting AI applications, authorities said.

When he served as Google CTO, Ding owned 20% of the stock of an early-stage technology company in China, and he traveled to the country in October for five months, according to the indictment. He permitted a fellow employee to use his access badge to scan into the entrance of a Google building to make it appear as though he was working from his U.S. Google office when he was in China, prosecutors said.

By May 2023, Ding had founded and become the CEO of his own technology company that touted the development of a software platform designed to accelerate machine learning workloads, including training large AI models. A document related to Ding's startup company, according to the indictment, says: "We have experience with Google's ten-thousand-card computational power platform; we just need to replicate and upgrade it - and then further develop a computational power platform suited to China's national conditions."

To evade detection from Google's data loss prevention system, Ding allegedly copied data from the source files into his work MacBook's Apple Notes application and converted the notes into PDF files, which he later uploaded in a separate account.

The compromised data could have potentially allowed Ding and his partners to build AI applications that can understand nuanced language and generate intelligent responses to queries, develop their own computer chips with high processing powers based on Google's hardware design and use the stolen software to manage machine learning workloads efficiently.

"The theft of innovative technology and trade secrets from American companies can cost jobs and have devastating economic and national security consequences," said FBI Director Christopher Wray.

The charges are part of the Disruptive Technology Strike Force, a law enforcement effort launched in February 2023 and co-led by the departments of Justice and Commerce, who work with multiple agencies to prevent authoritarian regimes and hostile nation-states from acquiring critical U.S. technologies.

About the Author

Rashmi Ramesh

Rashmi Ramesh

Assistant Editor, Global News Desk, ISMG

Ramesh has seven years of experience writing and editing stories on finance, enterprise and consumer technology, and diversity and inclusion. She has previously worked at formerly News Corp-owned TechCircle, business daily The Economic Times and The New Indian Express.

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