DOJ charges ex-Google employee with theft of AI trade secrets

Google headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Ex-Google software engineer Leon Ding allegedly funneled research and confidential information from his employer to China-based companies.

A Northern California federal grand jury indicted a former Google employee on trade theft charges related to sharing sensitive, proprietary artificial intelligence technology with companies based in the People’s Republic of China.

Unsealed on Monday, the indictment accuses former Google software engineer Leon Ding with illegally sharing confidential company information with other technology companies based in China. Department of Justice officials allege that Ding shared company data from Google to an external Chinese tech company, Beijing Rongshu Lianzhi Technology Co., via personal online accounts. 

Ding is accused of sharing confidential information about Google’s hardware and software infrastructure and platforms, AI model information and related applications. The indictment states that these trade secrets were transmitted in over 500 unique files between May 2022 and May 2023.

Itemized trade secrets Ding is alleged to have shared include chip architecture and software design specific to Google’s Cloud Tensor Processing Units and software design specifications for Google’s Cluster Management System operating Google’s supercomputing systems. 

“Mr. Ding allegedly schemed to siphon off cutting-edge AI technology from Google while secretly trying to go into business with Chinese competitors,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division in a press release

This indictment touches two focal points for U.S. policy: balancing risk and innovation in AI and grappling with ongoing geopolitical tensions with China. The U.S. government has already imposed export controls on Chinese tech companies like Huawei, and worked to prevent Chinese spyware from intercepting U.S. intellectual property. 

Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation named China as the U.S.’s top rival in the fight for global leadership in AI technology research and development. 

“While Linwei Ding was employed as a software engineer at Google, he was secretly working to enrich himself and two companies based in the People’s Republic of China,” said U.S. Attorney Ismail Ramsey in the press release. “By stealing Google’s trade secrets about its artificial intelligence supercomputing systems, Ding gave himself and the companies that he affiliated with in the PRC an unfair competitive advantage. This office is committed to protecting the innovation of our Silicon Valley companies.”

If convicted, Ding faces up to $250,000 in fines for each of the counts upon conviction, and a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.