Trade Secret Theft
A Michigan couple allegedly tried to sell GM trade secrets to a Chinese competitor.
Trade Secret Theft
Couple Conspires to Steal Hybrid Technology
With the “greening” of the American economy, it’s not surprising that the technology behind hybrid cars and vehicles of all kinds is an increasingly attractive target to would-be information thieves looking to make a fast buck.
This summer, in fact, a Michigan couple was charged in just such a case—for allegedly walking off with an estimated $40 million in General Motors (GM) hybrid-related trade secrets, hoping to sell them to one of GM’s Chinese competitors.
What’s a trade secret, exactly? Information with independent economic value, like blueprints, chemical formulas, research and development, marketing strategies, and manufacturing processes that the owner has taken reasonable steps to keep confidential. In 1996, Congress passed the Economic Espionage Act to protect trade secrets from criminals and foreign governments in order to preserve the health and competitiveness of the U.S. economy. It was under that law that the Michigan couple was charged.
According to the indictment, Shanshan Du joined GM as an engineer in 2000, signing an agreement to protect proprietary information created or obtained during her employment. In late 2003, she asked to be reassigned to work involving the motor control system of hybrid vehicles. That gave her access to company trade secrets, and over the next couple of years, she allegedly copied thousands of sensitive GM documents onto external hard drives and flash drives—and even sent a few over her GM e-mail account. She is accused of then passing that information to her husband, Yu Qin, who was employed by a power electronics company but who was also secretly running his own company that was involved in hybrid technology.
Yu Qin allegedly used the GM information given to him by his wife to communicate with others, by e-mail and in person, about new business ventures that would provide hybrid vehicle technology to a Chinese automotive manufacturer and GM competitor. He also allegedly used the information when he applied for a job in the hybrid vehicle field and submitted résumés listing one of his “major accomplishments” as the design and simulation of the hybrid motor vehicle motor control system—the very subject of GM trade secret documents found in his possession.
Qin’s employer found GM’s trade secret information on a hard drive used by Qin for his company’s business, and GM subsequently contacted the FBI. With the company’s cooperation—along with the assistance and expertise of our computer analysis experts—we were able to gather the evidence needed to arrest the couple.
The FBI, with its partners, continues to make strides in protecting trade secrets and exposing those who try to steal them. Just in the past two months:
- A former chemist at a paint manufacturer pled guilty to stealing numerous formulas and other proprietary information valued at up to $20 million from his employer as he prepared to go work for an overseas competitor.
- A research scientist for a major agricultural company was charged with stealing trade secrets from his employer and seeking information about possible manufacturing sites in China.
Through liaison and outreach efforts, we’re also working to help companies come up with policies to better protect their trade secrets from those who want to benefit financially from the innovation and hard work of others.