What Apple’s self-driving car case tells us about data

Posted on 20 Jul 2018 by Maddy White

Charges have been filed against a former Apple employee for allegedly stealing the company’s self-driving car data; what does this tell us about the value and vulnerability of data?

Apple's breach opens up the debate about cybersecurity, connectivity and just how control of the transfer of data is vital for a copmany's future.
Apple’s breach opens up the debate about cybersecurity, connectivity and just how information is controlled within a company.

The former employee is alleged to have downloaded blueprints for a circuit board for Apple’s autonomous car, just before booking a last minute flight to China. The accused has pleaded not guilty.

The case has, for the first time, given details into the self-driving car programme being carried out by the company and the potential vulnerabilities of the tech giant’s data.

Peter Cubbin, director of cybersecurity specialist Cyberfen, told The Manufacturer: “Apple were a bit complacent. What are the associated risks of giving a Chinese national access to their deep data secrets? I would imagine it is pretty high.”

This is a risk, Cubbin explained, as this isn’t the first time China has been accused of stealing intellectual property. He commented: “The stealth jet, it took decades for Lockheed to develop, and months before they released it, the Chinese bought out an almost identical aircraft.

“This is because they had infiltrated the American system so deeply that the US government don’t know how they did it and even if they are still doing it.”

Cubbin added: “You shouldn’t be able to transfer information from a secure laptop, you shouldn’t be able to get that data off.”

Some of the information highlighted was that of the current status of the availability of Apple’s autonomous car plans; more than 5,000 employees had access to information regarding the programme, and over half of these had further access to ‘secret databases’.

The breach opens up the debate about not only Apple’s data, but cybersecurity, connectivity and just how the control of information within a company is increasingly important.

Data is both valuable and vulnerable

Industrial Internet Cyber Security Attack Hack Data Crime
Within an ever-more connected ecosystem, data security remains a high priority for many manufacturing executives.

Cubbin explained what he believes this breach of security tells us: “What this calls attention to, is that there is an inherent tension between distributing your technology, against controlling access into main data systems, especially on an individual’s own device; security wise this is a complete nightmare. 

“If you have got lots of different people from many places trying to access your crown jewels of data, you can’t possibly keep track of everything.”

What this case shows, is that company’s data – even giants like Apple, whose IP is absolutely everything –  is extremely valuable and also, remains vulnerable.

For manufacturers, the benefits to using data is multitude; from improved productivity, to monitoring and tracking, predictive maintenance, feedback loops and better customer relationships, rapid innovation, and generally, a more responsive and adaptable business.

In fact, the manufacturing sector creates more data than any other, and therefore this could be central to the value and future of some businesses.

The Manufacturer’s comprehensive annual report this year, found that 66% of manufacturers said digital technologies will be a massive growth driver in UK manufacturing, and a further 87% claimed they are ready to invest in new digital technologies to boost productivity.


According to a report, almost half (48%) of UK manufacturers have been victims of a cyber attack and 45% feel that they lack access to the correct tools to counter cybersecurity.

The ‘Cyber Security for Manufacturing’ report by EEF and AIG, carried out by The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), surveyed 170 UK companies, and found that 41% of businesses don’t believe they have access to enough information to even assess their levels of cyber risk, let alone safeguard against attacks like data theft.

Blockchain CyberAttackers CyberSecurity Hack CyberThreat Data Digital - Stock
Do manufacturing executives fully understand the impact cyber attacks could have on their business?

Cubbin explained that he doesn’t think manufacturers fully understand the impact cyber attacks could have and that “they have no idea why or how it might happen to them.”

Data breaches are becoming an increasing concern for manufacturers, as they need to protect their intellectual property, processes and secure future customers. If companies like Apple are unable to protect their IP from their own employees, will smaller manufacturers and companies face an even bigger task in doing this?

Cubbin explained as long as the correct steps are taken to protect businesses against cyber attacks, the benefits of utilising digital systems outweigh the risks.

Tips to keep cyber safe

Cubbin explained, companies need to know where vulnerabilities lie in their data and without this, “it is like trying to get a bespoke suit made for you but not giving them any measurements.”

In order to counter cyber threat, Cubbin suggested these four steps for businesses:

  • Business leaders have to understand the potential cyber risk and impact
  • Where are those cyber risks to the business?
  • They then need to work out a solution to the security problems
  • Finally, business leaders need to implement these solutions, and monitor them afterward

Utilising big data case study: Rakusen’s cracker manufacturer

University of Bradford is working with Rakusen’s on a big data project to improve the efficiency - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
The collaboration aims to use big data to create an intelligent manufacturing dashboard – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Leeds-based cracker manufacturer, Rakusen’s is working with the University of Bradford on a big data project to improve product line efficiency.

The Manufacturer previously reported that the project will use big data intelligence to provide the snack manufacturer the ability to improve the capacity of its product lines.

The collaboration aims to create an intelligent manufacturing dashboard, which sets out production, ingredients, and supply chain components to create consistent and quality food products.

Bradford computer science academics are to use a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) to apply big data, industrial internet of things (IIoT), and artificial intelligence research principles in order to carry out their objectives.