US Jails Chinese Scientist for Stealing $1bn of Trade Secrets

A Chinese scientist convicted of stealing trade secrets worth $1bn from an Oklahoma petroleum company has been jailed in the United States. 

Hongjin Tan was employed by the unnamed company in June 2017 to work in a group whose goal it was to develop next-generation battery technologies for stationary energy storage. 

Vigilant coworkers caught the 36-year-old Chinese national and US legal permanent resident stealing hundreds of files containing proprietary information specifically related to flow batteries.

After being confronted with the theft, Tan admitted intentionally copying and downloading the research and development materials onto a thumb drive without authorization from his employer.

Realizing the jig was up, Tan turned in the thumb drive along with his resignation in December 2018. But when investigators examined the storage device, they found evidence that five documents that had been stored on it had since been deleted. 

The missing files were later located on an external hard drive recovered during a search of Tan's premises. It transpired that Tan had swiped the files and squirreled them away at home, where they could be accessed, and potentially sold, at a later date. 

On November 12, 2019, Tan pleaded guilty to theft of a trade secret, unauthorized transmission of a trade secret, and unauthorized possession of a trade secret.

Speaking at the time, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said: “Tan’s guilty plea continues to fill in the picture of China’s theft of American intellectual property.

"The Department launched its China Initiative to battle precisely the type of behavior reflected in today’s plea—illegal behavior that costs Americans their jobs—and we will continue to do so.”  

Yesterday, US District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell sentenced Hongjin Tan to 24 months in federal prison and ordered him to pay $150,000 in restitution to his former employer. After completing his two-year prison sentence, Tan will spend a further three years on supervised release.

“The sentencing of Hongjin Tan underscores the FBI’s commitment to protecting our country's industries from adversaries who attempt to steal valuable proprietary information," said Melissa Godbold, special agent in charge of the FBI Oklahoma City Field Office, said.

"American companies invest heavily in advanced research and cutting-edge technology. Trade secret theft is detrimental to our national security and free-market economy. It takes profits away from companies and jobs away from hard working Americans."

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