Six residents of China face economic espionage and theft of trade secret charges for allegedly funneling radio frequency technologies used in mobile devices from U.S. companies to a university controlled by the Chinese government.
The defendants facing charges in the U.S. are connected to Tianjin University in China. The U.S. Department of Justice released a 32-count indictment on Tuesday, three days after Tianjin University Professor Hao Zhang was arrested at the Los Angeles airport while trying to enter the U.S. from China. The five other defendants remain at large.
The six are charged with stealing thin-film bulk acoustic resonator (FBAR) technology used in mobile phones from two U.S. companies, according to a DOJ press release. FBAR technology filters incoming and outgoing wireless signals so that a mobile phone only receives and transmits the specific communications intended by the user. In addition to consumer applications, FBAR is used in several military and communications technologies.
The defendants accessed sensitive U.S. technologies to share trade secrets with the Chinese government for "economic advantage," Assistant Attorney General John Carlin said in a statement. "Economic espionage imposes great costs on American businesses, weakens the global marketplace and ultimately harms U.S. interests worldwide."
Zhang met fellow defendant Wei Pang at the University of Southern California during their doctoral studies in electrical engineering in the early 2000s, according to the indictment. The two researched FBAR technology, with funding by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), while at USC.
After the two earned their doctorates in about 2005, Pang began working as an FBAR engineer with Avago Technologies in Colorado, and Zhang accepted employment as an FBAR engineer with Skyworks Solutions in Massachusetts. Both companies were involved in designing FBAR technologies at the time.
In 2006 and 2007, Pang, Zhang and other co-conspirators prepared a business plan and began soliciting Chinese universities and other organizations for opportunities to start manufacturing FBAR technology in China, the DOJ said. In 2008, officials from Tianjin University flew to San Jose, California, to meet the defendants, and later agreed to help Pang, Zhang and others establish an FBAR fabrication facility in China.
Pang and Zhang continued to work for the two U.S. companies while coordinating with Tianjin University, the DOJ said. In mid-2009, Pang and Zhang resigned from the U.S. companies and accepted positions as full professors at Tianjin University. Tianjin University later formed a joint venture to produce FBAR technology, called ROFS Microsystem, with Pang, Zhang and others.
The indictment alleges that Pang, Zhang and other co-conspirators stole recipes, source code, specifications, presentations, design layouts and other documents marked as confidential and proprietary from the victim companies and shared the information with each other and with Tianjin University.
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