Apple says the startup from Mountain View has hunted down engineers who got the secrets

Apple has filed a lawsuit against Mountain View startup called Rivos, which claims poachers took away the secrets of chip design as they left the iPhone giant Cupertino.

“Rivos is still targeting Apple engineers and there are more departures this month,” the lawsuit filed on Friday said.

The startup, which is now described on its website as “stealth mode,” hired more than 40 former Apple employees last year, the lawsuit said.

“Beginning in June 2021, Rivos launched a coordinated campaign targeting Apple employees who have access to Apple’s proprietary information and trade secrets about Apple (chip) designs,” the lawsuit said in the US District Court in San Jose.

Rivos instructed some employees to download and install encrypted communication applications before conducting further conversations with them.

Rivos did not immediately respond to email and voicemail requests for comment.

According to the lawsuit, most of the employees who left Apple for the startup are design engineers working on computer and telephone chips.

Apple says forensic analysis of devices that employees returned to him before they left shows that they took the information.

The issue is the Apple M1 computer chip – designed in-house and released in late 2020, marking the company’s departure from Intel processors – and the “A15” chip used in the latest iPhones. Apple has spent billions of dollars in chip development, the lawsuit said.

Rivos was founded a year ago with the aim of producing chips that could compete with Apple, the lawsuit said. Information gathered by Apple employees employed by Rivos included “some of Apple’s most sensitive and valuable information” that will “provide Rivos with a significant, unfair advantage in developing advanced … chips,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also lists two former Apple employees who allegedly took secret data with them to Rivos. Bhasi Kaithamana worked at Apple in Austin, Texas for nearly 8 years as a chip design management engineer, according to the lawsuit. Apple says Kaithamana accepted a job offer from Rivos between July 20 and August 9 last year, and then asked Apple for a vacation on August 10.

“During the day off, Mr. Kaithamana created a new folder on his Apple-issued computer and began copying Apple documents containing proprietary information and trade secrets,” the lawsuit said. Although Kaithamana resigned from Apple on August 13, “he was working to further build up a collection of Apple’s proprietary and commercial files (chips) until the day before he left Apple on August 16,” the lawsuit said. Kaithaman’s folder called “APPLE_WORK_DOCS” contained thousands of Apple documents, and he himself copied the files to an external drive, Apple claims.

Kaithamana did not immediately respond to email and voicemail requests sent to him on Rivos asking for comment.

Another former Apple employee, Ricky Wen of San Jose, worked at Apple for nearly 14 years as a chip design engineer, according to the lawsuit. Rivos asked Wen to move to Apple in June or July last year and accepted a job offer similar to the one he had at Apple on July 23.

Within a week, Wen, also known as Wen Shih-Chieh, transferred around 390 gigabytes of data – including trade secrets about past, present, and unpublished chips – from his Apple-issued computer to his personal hard drive, and Apple discovered that he had access to more chip design secrets the day before he left Apple and just before plugging the hard drive into his company-released computer, the lawsuit claimed. He also transferred hundreds of files to his personal Google Drive, including chip design diagrams, and kept trade secrets on his iCloud Drive after he left Apple, the lawsuit claimed.

Wen did not immediately respond to email and voicemail requests sent to him on Rivos asking for comment.

Apple further claimed that “numerous” other ex-employees who took up jobs at Rivos similar to the one they had at Apple downloaded and retained Apple’s proprietary documents after accepting job offers from the startup. Several of them connected external drives to computers released by Apple in the days between their hiring by Rivos and their departure from Apple.

“Several employees deleted information or completely wiped their Apple devices to cover their tracks,” the lawsuit said.

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