Chinese Scientist Sentenced to Two Years in Prison for Stealing Trade Secrets Worth $1 Billion

Tulsa, OK–A former associate scientist was sentenced to 24 months in federal prison in federal court today for stealing proprietary information worth more than $1 billion from his employer, a U.S. petroleum company.

In November 2019, Hongjin Tan, 36, a Chinese National and U.S. legal permanent resident,pleaded guilty to theft of a trade secret, unauthorized transmission of a trade secret, and unauthorized possession of a trade secret. From June 2017 until December 2018, Tan was employed as an associate scientist at the petroleum company and was assigned to work in a group with the goal of developing next generation battery technologies for stationary energy storage, specifically flow batteries. In his plea agreement, Tan admitted to intentionally copying and downloading the technologies’ research and development materials without authorization from his employer.

“This investigation and prosecution uncovered another instance of China’s persistent attempts to steal American intellectual property,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “The department of justice will continue to confront this type of illicit behavior to safeguard American industry and protect American jobs.”

According to the plea agreement, Tan used a thumb drive to copy hundreds of files containing the proprietary information on Dec. 11, 2018. He subsequently turned in his resignation and was escorted from the premises on Dec. 12, 2018. Later that day, he returned the thumb drive, claiming that he had forgotten to do so before leaving his employer’s property. Upon examination, it was discovered that there was unallocated space on the thumb drive, indicating five documents had previously been deleted. Investigators with the FBI searched Tan’s premises and found an external hard drive. They discovered that the same five missing files from the thumb drive had been downloaded to the hard drive. Tan maintained the files on a hard drive so he could access the data at a later date. Further accessing the material would have been financially advantageous for Tan but caused significant financial damage to his Oklahoma employer.

U.S. District Judge Gregory K. Frizzell sentenced Tan to 24 months in federal prison and ordered the defendant to pay $150,000 in restitution to his former employer. Following his release from prison, Tan will spend three years on supervised release.

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