Tesla Settles With Former Employee in Corporate Espionage Case

Tesla has settled with a former employee who allegedly uploaded data on the Autopilot feature to iCloud and handed it over to XMotors when he moved over to a position in that company. XMotors is owned by the Chinese company XPeng.

The former Tesla employee, named Cao Guangzhi, will make an unspecified monetary payment to Tesla as part of the settlement. Cao’s attorney denied that he handed any of Tesla’s proprietary information over to XMotors or any other company.

XMotors was not a party in the case and denies that it made use of any of Tesla’s intellectual property. It is developing its own self-driving software.

In court filings, Tesla referred to the Autopilot as the “crown jewel of Tesla’s intellectual property portfolio.” It is also making improvements to the related Full Self-Driving software, including the recent addition of features like automatic lane-changing, auto-parking, and summon.

Despite the improvements, Full Self-Driving is still in beta and regulators say that it is not yet ready to drive a car on its own. Tesla does sometimes disable the beta for users who fail to stay alert while using Full Self-Driving.

Tesla seems to be regarded as a juicy target for corporate espionage, cyberattacks, and the simple leaking of sensitive documents by disgruntled employees. In March, a “hacktivist” group called APT-69420 Arson Cats claimed responsibility for a hack that gave them “Super Admin” access to the security camera system at a Tesla facility. The group said that it was attempting to raise awareness of the lax security surrounding these camera systems, which can lead to the release of sensitive video footage.

In January, the company filed a case against a former employee named Alex Khatilov, who transferred documents to a personal DropBox account. Khatilov denied any intention to hand the files over to any outside third party.

More recently, a Russian national pled guilty to charges related to an attempted ransomware attack. The attempt involved an attempt to bribe an unnamed Tesla employee to inject ransomware into Tesla’s computer system.

Last year, a Nevada federal court ruled in favor of Tesla in its case against disgruntled former employee Martin Tripp, who distributed sensitive information to the media in 2018. Tripp claims that he was merely attempting to raise awareness of unsafe working conditions at Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada. The court ruled that Tripp violated cybersecurity laws.

Tesla is a prime target for these attacks, considering that it’s considered a leader in the electric vehicle market and Elon Musk has a reputation for being a demanding boss. China and its companies have been involved in many cases of industrial espionage targeting American companies in an attempt to improve its own technology and industrial prowess.

China might have attempted to divert attention from its own espionage activities by banning Tesla vehicles from government facilities with the excuse that the onboard cameras could be used for espionage and accusing Tesla of “sweatshop” conditions at Gigafactory Shanghai. This has caused tensions between Tesla and China. Musk has attempted to smooth things over, but seems to draw the line at the theft of company secrets like Cao Guangzhi’s alleged swiping of data related to the Autopilot to hand over to the Chinese company XMotors.