At the end of May this year, the FBI released more details pertaining to a $1 billion trade secret theft case after an ex-employee plead guilty in November of 2019. The FBI also emphasised the need for companies to report suspected crimes such as the theft of trade secrets.
The ex-employee was named as Hongjin Tan and is a Chinese national. Tan started working as an associate scientist at a petroleum company based in Oklahoma, US in June 2017 but resigned in December 2018. The Justice Department reportedly declined to name the company in question.
After working for the US company for 15 months, Tan resigned from his position syaing that he was intending to return to China to care for his elderly parents. However, Tan told a co-worker a different story whilst out to dinner. According to the FBI, Tan told his co-worker that he wasn’t in fact going back to China to care for his elderly parents, but for new job at a Chinese company.
In a statement, the FBI continued to say that Tan went on to explain to his colleague that a company called Xiamen Tungsten had a job waiting for him, as long as be provided them with information from his US employer regarding battery technology. The Chinese company specialises in smelting, processing and distributing various metals as well as suppling materials found inside batteries.
Reportedly, after hearing Tan’s actual plans his (then) employer terminated him immediately and made a call to the FBI tip line to report a possible crime. They then started to look into Tan’s activity leading up to that point. It was promptly discovered that he had been accessing confidential documents that weren’t necessary for his day to day work, but were regarding the company’s battery technology.
The FBI found that around the same time as applying for China’s ‘Thousand Talents Program’, Tan started accessing the confidential information. The Chinese program is aimed at people up to the age of 55 who work in R&D institutes or Universities and designed to recruit them to relocate and work in China. A large emphasis is placed on applicants sending research back to China in return for financial benefits.
According to the criminal complaint from last year, the product affiliated with the data that Tan was accessing has made the US company $1.4-1.8 billion. A competitor getting hold of this data would have had grave consequences.
Hongjin Tan plead guilty to taking the trade secret in November 2019, was sentenced in February 2020 to 24 months in prison and ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution. The FBI confirmed several months later that after his prison sentence he will be deported.