Apple claims a little-known startup has stolen its trade secrets for the MacBook M1 chip and the iPhone 13’s A15 mobile processor by poaching former employees.
Last Friday, Apple filed a lawsuit in a US district court against a startup in stealth mode called Rivos, which is allegedly developing its own competing chips. The trade secret theft occurred when the employees transferred gigabytes of sensitive information about Apple chip designs during their last days of employment at the tech giant.
“Starting in June 2021, Rivos began a coordinated campaign to target Apple employees with access to Apple proprietary and trade secret information about Apple’s SoC (system-on-chip) designs,” the lawsuit claims.
Apple says the employees lifted the sensitive chip designs by using multiple USB storage drives and the company’s AirDrop service. “Others saved voluminous presentations on existing and unreleased Apple SoCs—marked Apple Proprietary and Confidential—to their personal cloud storage drives,” the lawsuit adds. “One even made a full Time Machine backup of his entire Apple device onto a personal external drive.”
In addition to Rivos, the lawsuit names two former Apple CPU design engineers, Wen Shih-Chieh and Bhasi Kaithamana, for allegedly pulling off some of the intellectual property theft. According to Cupertino, both employees signed non-disclosure agreements, barring them from exposing Apple’s technology.
Rivos did not immediately respond to a request for comment. There’s not a lot known about the startup, which Apple says was founded in May 2021. But a website says the company is based in Mountain View, California, and is hiring “full-time and internship positions available in Austin, TX and Mountain View, CA.”
The CTO of Rivos, Belli Kuttanna, is former fellow at Intel. CEO Puneet Kumar previously worked at Google as a director for Chrome OS.
As for Apple, the company points out it’s spent billions of dollars and more than a decade to develop its Arm-based chips designs for the MacBook and iPhone. “As is necessary for their cutting-edge work, select Apple engineers have access to some of Apple’s most closely guarded proprietary and trade secret information,” the lawsuit says.
Although the complaint only names two former employees, Apple says over 40 ex-staffers have joined Rivos. “A majority of these former Apple employees were design engineers, developing Apple’s cutting-edge proprietary and trade secret SoC designs,” the lawsuit adds.
To facilitate the trade secret theft, Rivos allegedly used the encrypted chat app Signal to communicate with the employees. “For instance, after joining Rivos, a former Apple employee provided a then-Apple employee a link to download Signal for communicating about Rivos with Rivos’s CTO Belli Kuttanna,” the lawsuit said. “Another Apple employee installed Signal in the weeks before leaving for Rivos and invited another employee that also left for Rivos to communicate on the platform.”
Apple is now demanding the court force Rivos to pay damages and return all the information it allegedly stole from the company. The lawsuit is also urging the judge to impose a permanent injunction against Rivos to prevent it from using any Apple trade secrets.