Hongjin Tan, 36, a Chinese scientist working for a petroleum company in the USA almost managed to get away with stealing proprietary information worth more than billions but for one ‘stupid mistake’ which found him behind the bars.
In what seemed to be a routine case of an employee quitting an organization for personal reasons, Tan who had been working in the US-based company for 18 months resigned from the job based on the plea that he was required to take care for his ageing parents back home to China.
His employers sportingly accepted to release him and even went to the extent of offering him that in case he did not have any alternate employment he could continue working in the same company till the end of his notice period in December 2018.
Till this stage, no one could even point a finger of suspicion on Tan who had been a permanent resident and living in the United States over the past six years during which he earned his PhD and worked for a number of firms before making his way to the energy company in Oklahoma.
But unknown to them– Tan was reportedly copying hundreds of files containing proprietary secrets on a portable drive.
Tan’s luck ran out when he revealed his game-plan and disclosed his real intentions to a colleague over dinner.
Tan allegedly told the colleague that had already got a highly paid job with a Chinese company called Xiamen Tungsten in China that smelts, processes, and distributes metal products and also supplies battery materials.
The secrets collected by Tan from the U.S. petroleum company’s innovative products and battery technology would place it years ahead in the competition.
Tan’s companion reported the conversation to his supervisor. Based on it, the company immediately dismissed Tan and began to scrutinize the documents and systems he had accessed in the immediate past. The company found Tan had accessed sensitive documents dealing with innovative technology – not directly related to Tan’s work for the firm.
This is when the company sought the FBI’s help to investigate the case and confiscate the company’s files stored at Tan’s home. Gaining this information allowed agents to get an arrest warrant for Tan.
Meanwhile probably unaware that his game was up Tan called up his supervisor and said he wanted to return a thumb drive with company documents on it. Tan bluntly told the supervisor that he copied the files to continue his research work.
On being questioned by the FBI Tan confessed to intentionally copying as well as unauthorized possession and transmission of several documents and research and development information worth millions without authorization.
FBI investigators discovered that there was unallocated space on the drive, indicating that five documents had been deleted.
FBI investigators searched Tan’s premises and found an external hard drive containing the same five missing files downloaded from the thumb drive. Tan admitted that he copied the files on the hard drive to access the data at a later date.
Tan’s theft of trade secrets—worth an estimated $1 billion—is an example of a systematic game plan by the Chinese government to gain an economic advantage by stealing the innovative work of U.S. companies and facilities.
The present investigation is another instance of China’s persistent attempts to woo unscrupulous individuals like Hongjin Tan to steal American trade secrets so that they can be replicated in no time and without any R&D cost.
U.S. intelligence agencies have been able to unearth China’s Thousand Talents Program which provides financial incentives and other privileges to participants send back the research and technology knowledge while working in the United States.
Tan reportedly had made several trips to China and had access to sensitive documents until the day before he resigned. But call it a quirk of fate or otherwise his ‘stupid mistake’ cost him dearly and he was arrested for the crime, days before he was planning to fly out to China on December 29.
Tan has now been sentenced to 24-month in prison for stealing proprietary information belonging to his company.