Ex-Broadcom engineer asks for house arrest over IP theft

Admits guilt, but claims he took files to jog his memory, afraid he'd not keep up with 'younger engineers'

Updated A former Broadcom engineer who pleaded guilty to stealing his ex-employer's trade secrets has asked the court not to give him prison time, saying he stole the files for reference, fearing he would "be unable to keep up" with "more technical and younger engineers" at a new startup.

According to the filing, Peter Kisang Kim worked for Broadcom for 22 years before he accepted a job in 2020 at a Chinese networking chip design startup called Mersenne Technologies, where his role was design verification director.

Kim, who initially pleaded not guilty when he was indicted in November last year, changed his plea in May this year, accepting a deal acknowledging he had copied Broadcom trade secrets in the form of files related to design specs for networking chips used in datacenters.

The memo [PDF], submitted by Kim's lawyers to the California district court on September 13, asks for a sentence of six months of home confinement, 100 hours of community service, and three years of probation, which they said should take into consideration that he "never implemented any of the information contained in the files in his work at Mersenne."

He went on to state that after development meetings at his new employer, "he occasionally looked at the Broadcom files to see if he could get insights into what the engineers were talking about. Typically, the files proved unhelpful because there was just too much data."

Kim's team also added that the files, which he took "as a crutch if and when he needed one," would not have been practically useful because Broadcom appears to have used customized Perl scripts for its datacenter ASIC designs, where Mersenne's devs used Python. "He referenced the files to refresh his memory as to certain procedures, terminology and to remind himself of how things were done at Broadcom, but he never used that data to 'develop' products."

His lawyers went on to say that it was an "exaggeration" to say "Kim singlehandedly threatened the 'national security of the United States'," as Broadcom had earlier claimed.

The government argued in its own memo [PDF], submitted on the same day, that the court should impose a sentence of 15 months of imprisonment, followed by three years of supervised release, a $5,000 fine, and restitution. It argued that even though he took the "Broadcom trade secrets for reference purposes, Kim knew that having them could advance the quality of his work as an employee for Company-1 and therefore economically benefit the company."

It said that Kim had worked on various Broadcom products during his time at the company, including the Trident family of networking integrated circuit chips (such as the Trident 3 and the Trident 4), frequently used in high-volume datacenters.

Explaining that he "was not well-versed in design architecture or feature details," Kim's memo said he had been "cautiously insecure stepping into a position where he would be in charge of the entire verification team" having "spent 20 years at Broadcom doing the same thing over and over again."

He had no opportunity to move into management there and realized his skills were not as sharp as they once were, just like an aging athlete. The attraction of Mersenne for [him] had been the opportunity to be a manager. [He] had realized that he did not have many years left to do technical work as it was becoming more difficult to do as his skills diminished and he was not able to focus as he once had.

The memo said the act was not for personal financial gain, and wasn't revenge on Broadcom, to which he apologized for breaking trust after "decades of honest work," saying his career in the semiconductor industry was over and that he suffers from depression.

"It was, quite simply, foolish, and for no reason other than fear: fear of forgetfulness, fear of inadequacy, and fear of failure."

The sentencing is due to take place on the morning of September 20.

We have asked Broadcom for comment. ®

Updated to add:

Kim was sentenced [PDF] on September 20, 2022, on three of the charges. He received eight months for each, running concurrently – meaning eight months in prison altogether, with three years supervised release. The court also added fines, recommended he be placed in a facility as close to the Bay Area as possible, and dismissed the remaining charges.

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