Chinese prof sent down for 18 months for stealing semiconductor secrets, trying to patent them to cover tracks

Five years after arrest at LAX, Broadcom secret snatcher sent down

A Chinese professor who stole trade secrets from a Silicon Valley semiconductor company was yesterday sentenced to 18 months in jail and fined $476,835.

Hao Zhang, 41, was found guilty of economic espionage and theft of trade secrets in June, and was facing up to 15 years in the clink. He’s been in custody for five years following his arrest at Los Angeles airport in 2015.

Zhang was caught stealing from his former employer Skyworks as well as persuading a former classmate to steal more secrets from chip giant Avago aka Broadcom. These include sharing know-how of acoustic filters and resonators, which help reduce interference and boost performance in smartphones and other wireless products – consumer and military – with co-conspirators in China back in 2006.

They also persuaded the Chinese government’s Tianjin University to support their plan to set up a manufacturing plant to make Film Bulk Acoustic Resonators (FBAR). Zhang and an associate quit their jobs, became professors of the university, and moved to China, taking American trade secrets with them.

US prosecutors successfully argued the two had taken "source code, specifications, presentations, design layouts and other documents marked as confidential and proprietary from the victim companies, and shared the information with one another and with individuals working for Tianjin University." With the university’s help, ROFS Microsystem was created and produced FBARs in competition to Avago and Skyworks.

Laundry time

US prosecutors said the pair then tried to legitimize their theft by setting up a shell company in the Cayman Islands called Novana Inc, and even tried to claim ownership of the technology by filing patents for the stolen secrets in both the US and China.

The authorities had been alerted, however, and when Zhang flew into Los Angeles, back in 2015, he was grabbed by FBI agents, arrested, charged and put on trial. "The stolen trade secrets enabled Tianjin University to construct and equip a state-of-the-art FBAR fabrication facility, to open ROFS Microsystems, a joint venture located in PRC state-sponsored Tianjin Economic Development Area (TEDA), and to obtain contracts for providing FBARs to commercial and military entities," prosecutors asserted.

As well as Zhang, five other Chinese citizens have been named as being involved in the scheme: Jinping Chen, a Tianjin professor and ROFS board director; Huisui Zhang, a former classmate of Zhang and Wei Pang, who received a master’s degree in electrical engineering in 2006; Chong Zhou, who studied under Zhang and Pang and was a ROFS design engineer; and Zhao Gang, the general manager at ROFS.

“Theft is not innovation. By combating theft, we protect innovation and freedom,” said federal prosecutor David Anderson. ®

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