Six Chinese citizens, including two university professors, have been indicted on U.S. charges of pilfering sensitive mobile-phone technology from two companies in the U.S. and sharing it with the Chinese government.
The charges represent the U.S. government’s latest salvo in its long-running effort to pressure Beijing to stop what American officials allege is the widespread theft of trade secrets to benefit China’s commercial and military industries. In this case, the Justice Department alleges, two Chinese researchers at U.S. companies conspired with officials at a state-run university in China to steal the wireless technology and mass produce it in their homeland.
One of the six men, Hao Zhang, a 36-year-old professor, was arrested Saturday after his flight from China landed at Los Angeles International Airport. Zhang, who was visiting the U.S. to attend a conference, was ordered held after a brief court appearance Monday, according to a Justice Department statement on Tuesday.
Zhang and the others are accused of orchestrating a conspiracy that stole technology that filters radio signals in mobile devices from San Jose, California-based Avago Technologies Ltd. and Skyworks Solutions Inc., according to the 32-count indictment. Zhang and another alleged conspirator, Wei Pang, 35, are both professors at the state-run Tianjin University in China.
“The defendants leveraged their access to and knowledge of sensitive U.S. technologies to illegally obtain and share U.S. trade secrets with the PRC for economic advantage,” Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said in a statement describing the charges. “Economic espionage imposes great costs on American businesses, weakens the global marketplace and ultimately harms U.S. interests worldwide.”
The indictment alleges that Zhang and Pang met during their doctoral studies at the University of Southern California, where they researched technology that helps to filter wireless signals in devices ranging from mobile phones to tablet computers.
After earning their degrees in 2005 and 2006, Pang began working for Avago and Zhang for Skyworks. By 2007, the duo were planning to steal the valuable mobile technology, which another conspirator described as simply “moving Avago to China,” the indictment alleged.
Spokesmen for Avago, which has a co-headquarters in Singapore, and Woburn, Massachusetts-based Skyworks didn’t immediately respond to a phone messages seeking comment.
The technology in question is called a thin-film bulk acoustic resonator, or FBAR, and it enables devices to filter wireless signals for its users.
While working for the firms, Zhang and Pang stole “recipes, source code, specifications, presentations, design layouts and other documents marked as confidential” to enable them to produce the resonators in China, according to the indictment. They also established relationships with officials at Tianjin University, which agreed to support their efforts to create a plant in China.
In 2009, Pang and Zhang resigned from the companies and accepted professorships at Tianjin, which formed joint state ventures with the men to produce the resonators. The stolen trade secrets allowed the conspirators to construct a “state-of-the-art FBAR fabrication facility” and obtain contracts with commercial and military entities, the Justice Department said.
Pang, Zhang and four others were indicted on charges of economic espionage and the theft of trade secrets. The espionage charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. It’s at least the 11th case in which the U.S. government has charged someone with economic espionage since the statute was enacted by Congress in 1996, the Justice Department said.
The U.S. government has been seeking to pressure China to halt economic spying, an effort that culminated in last year’s indictment of five Chinese military officials on charges of cyberespionage. The Justice Department alleged that the hackers conspired to steal information from U.S. entities that would be useful to competitors in China.
U.S. officials say China and Russia have been the most aggressive in the realm of economic espionage, and they are seeking ways to curb the damage caused by such theft.
In its annual report to Congress on Beijing’s military strategy, the Pentagon concluded that “China uses its intelligence services and employs other illicit approaches that violate U.S. laws and export controls to obtain key national security and export-restricted technologies, controlled equipment, and other materials not readily obtainable through commercial means or academia.”