Yesterday the DOJ announced that a Chinese national who’d been living in Missouri pleaded guilty to corporate espionage.
Xiang Haitao, 44, was employed as an imaging scientist by Monsanto and its subsidiary, the Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017, the department said in a statement.
Xiang pleaded guilty in Missouri, where Monsanto is based, to one count of conspiracy to commit economic espionage on behalf of China, it said.
The DOJ press release has more details on what Xiang stole and when he was arrested.
“Despite Xiang’s agreements to protect Monsanto’s intellectual property and repeated training on his obligations to do so, Xiang has now admitted that he stole a trade secret from Monsanto, transferred it to a memory card and attempted to take it to the People’s Republic of China for the benefit of Chinese government,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division…
According to court documents, Xiang was employed by Monsanto and its subsidiary, The Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017, where he worked as an imaging scientist. Monsanto and The Climate Corporation developed a digital, online farming software platform that was used by farmers to collect, store and visualize critical agricultural field data and increase and improve agricultural productivity for farmers. A critical component to the platform was a proprietary predictive algorithm referred to as the Nutrient Optimizer. Monsanto and The Climate Corporation considered the Nutrient Optimizer a valuable trade secret and their intellectual property.
In June 2017, the day after leaving employment with Monsanto and The Climate Corporation, Xiang attempted to travel to China on a one-way airplane ticket. While he was waiting to board his flight, Federal officials conducted a search of Xiang’s person and baggage. Investigators later determined that one of Xiang’s electronic devices contained copies of the Nutrient Optimizer. Xiang continued on to China where he worked for the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Soil Science. Xiang was arrested when he returned to the United States.
Reading the press release very closely, it says Xiang “attempted” to take the secret IP to China which makes it sound like he didn’t succeed. But at the same time it goes on to say his computer was examined in June 2017 but investigators later determined the algorithm in question was on the device. I could be wrong but doesn’t later mean they didn’t catch it at the time? All that to say, despite reading the release and the VOA story, it’s not entirely clear to me if Xiang managed to take the data with him to China or not.
Back when Xiang was arrested, China made a statement claiming the US was using him as proof the PRC routinely steals corporate secrets from American companies:
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, speaking in 2019 at the time Xiang was charged by U.S. authorities, said Washington was trying to use the case to back its accusations that China steals technology from U.S. companies.
“We resolutely oppose the U.S. side’s attempts to use the case, which we regard as an ordinary, isolated incident, to hype up claims of China’s organized and systematic attempts to steal intellectual property from the U.S.,” spokesman Geng Shuang said.
Claims that this was a lone-wolf case of espionage would be more convincing if a prominent Harvard professor hadn’t been found guilty of six counts of lying about his connections to China, specifically their Thousand Talents Plan, just before Christmas. Regardless of China’s self-serving denials it’s clear they are doing their best to steal from our companies, our military, our scientists and to gather as much data on Americans as possible.
Xiang will be sentence in April. He’s facing a maximum of 15 years in prison and up to a $5 million fine. Hopefully this confessed spy will spend a good stretch of time in prison.