PRC State-Owned Company, Taiwan Company, and Three Individuals Charged With Economic Espionage
A federal grand jury indicted a state-owned enterprise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a Taiwan company, and three individuals, charging them with crimes related to a conspiracy to steal, convey, and possess stolen trade secrets of an American semiconductor company for the benefit of a company controlled by the PRC government. All of the defendants are charged with a conspiracy to commit economic espionage, among other crimes. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division Brian A. Benczkowski, United States Attorney Alex G. Tse of the Northern District of California, and FBI Special Agent in Charge for the San Francisco Field Office John F. Bennett made the announcement.
In addition, the United States filed a civil lawsuit seeking to enjoin the further transfer of the stolen trade secrets and to enjoin certain defendants from exporting to the United States any products manufactured by UMC or Jinhua that were created using the trade secrets at issue. The indictment was filed on September 27, 2018, and unsealed today. The civil lawsuit was filed today.
“I am announcing that a grand jury in San Francisco has returned a multi-defendant indictment alleging economic espionage on the part of a state-owned Chinese company, a Taiwanese company, and three Taiwan individuals for an alleged scheme to steal trade secrets from Micron, an Idaho-based semi-conductor company,” said Attorney General Sessions. “The worldwide supply for DRAM is worth nearly $50 billion; Micron controls about 20 to 25 percent of the dynamic random access memory industry—a technology not possessed by the Chinese until very recently. As this and other recent cases have shown, Chinese economic espionage against the United States has been increasing—and it has been increasing rapidly. I am here to say that enough is enough. With integrity and professionalism, the Department of Justice will aggressively prosecute such illegal activity.”
“The theft of intellectual property is not only unfair, but stifles technological innovation by disincentivizing investment in long-term research and development,” said U.S. Attorney Alex Tse. “The theft of intellectual property on a continuing basis by nation-state actors is an even more damaging affront to the rule of law. We in the Northern District of California, one of the world’s great centers of intellectual property development, will continue to lead the fight to protect U.S. innovation from criminal misappropriation, whether motivated by personal greed or national economic ambition.”
"No country presents a broader, more severe threat to our ideas, our innovation, and our economic security than China," said FBI Director Christopher Wray. "The Chinese government is determined to acquire American technology, and they’re willing use a variety of means to do that – from foreign investments, corporate acquisitions, and cyber intrusions to obtaining the services of current or former company employees to get inside information. If China acquires an American company's most important technology – the very technology that makes it the leader in a field – that company will suffer severe losses, and our national security could even be impacted. We are committed to continuing to work closely with our federal, state, local, and private sector partners to counter this threat from China."
According to the indictment, the defendants were engaged in a conspiracy to steal the trade secrets of Micron Technology, Inc. (Micron), a leader in the global semiconductor industry specializing in the advanced research, development, and manufacturing of memory products, including dynamic random-access memory (DRAM). DRAM is a leading-edge memory storage device used in computer electronics. Micron is the only United States-based company that manufactures DRAM. According to the indictment, Micron maintains a significant competitive advantage in this field due in large part from its intellectual property, including its trade secrets that include detailed, confidential information pertaining to the design, development, and manufacturing of advanced DRAM products.
Prior to the events described in the indictment, the PRC did not possess DRAM technology, and the Central Government and State Council of the PRC publicly identified the development of DRAM and other microelectronics technology as a national economic priority. The criminal defendants are United Microelectronics Corporation (“UMC”), a Taiwan semiconductor foundry; Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit, Co., Ltd. (“Jinhua'”), a state-owned enterprise of the PRC; and three Taiwan nationals: Chen Zhengkun, a.k.a. Stephen Chen, age 55; He Jianting, a.k.a. J.T. Ho, age 42; and Wang Yungming, a.k.a. Kenny Wang, age 44. UMC is a publicly listed semiconductor foundry company traded on the New York Stock Exchange; is headquartered in Taiwan; and has offices worldwide, including in Sunnyvale, California. UMC mass produces integrated-circuit logic products based on designs and technology developed and provided by its customers. Jinhua is a state-owned enterprise of the PRC, funded entirely by the Chinese government, and established in February 2016 for the sole purpose of designing, developing, and manufacturing DRAM.
According to the indictment, Chen was a General Manager and Chairman of an electronics corporation that Micron acquired in 2013. Chen then became the president of a Micron subsidiary in Taiwan, Micron Memory Taiwan (“MMT”), responsible for manufacturing at least one of Micron’s DRAM chips. Chen resigned from MMT in July 2015 and began working at UMC almost immediately. While at UMC, Chen arranged a cooperation agreement between UMC and Fujian Jinhua whereby, with funding from Fujian Jinhua, UMC would transfer DRAM technology to Fujian Jinhua to mass-produce. The technology would be jointly shared by both UMC and Fujian Jinhua. Chen later became the President of Jinhua and was put in charge of its DRAM production facility.
While at UMC, Chen recruited numerous MMT employees, including Ho and Wang, to join him at UMC. Prior to leaving MMT, Ho and Wang both stole and brought to UMC several Micron trade secrets related to the design and manufacture of DRAM. Wang downloaded over 900 Micron confidential and proprietary files before he left MMT and stored them on USB external hard drives or in personal cloud storage, from where he could access the technology while working at UMC.
An indictment merely alleges that crimes have been committed, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If convicted, the individual defendants face a maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment and a $5,000,000 fine for economic espionage charges, and 10 years imprisonment for theft of trade secrets charges. If convicted, each company faces forfeiture and a maximum fine of more than $20 billion. However, any sentence following conviction would be imposed by the court only after consideration of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and the federal statute governing the imposition of a sentence, 18 U.S.C. § 3553.