FBI Case Example: Research Partnerships

This case example provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation tells one story of how foreign operatives can steal US trade secrets through research partnerships. The file also offers guidelines on detecting and avoiding these kinds of threats in the future. Find it here: https://www.fbi.gov/file-repository/china-case-example-defense-materials-2019.pdf/view


A Chinese citizen and lawful permanent resident of the United States worked as a senior engineer and scientist at a U.S. compa- ny, working on engines used by the U.S. Air Force’s F-22 and F-35 fighter aircraft. The Chinese citizen expressed to others his desire to return to China to advance his career and work on research proj- ects related to his work at the U.S. company. The Chinese citizen then sought out research opportunities with several state-run insti- tutions in China, including the Chinese Academy of Science (CAS) and an affiliate. Upon joining the CAS affiliate, the Chinese citizen agreed to provide the director and one of its recruiters with some of the U.S. company’s documents to substantiate his credentials.

A month after retirement from the U.S. company, the Chinese citizen traveled to China to begin work for the CAS affiliate. His CAS research plan stated China lacked the ability to process high-performance components, such as airplane wings and carrier aircraft tail hooks, as a result of its technology embargo. The Chinese citizen claimed by using Western com- panies’ technology, his research project would increase China’s independent ability, efficiency, and quality in key com- ponent manufacturing. He took with him to China his laptop and an external hard drive containing a significant amount of the U.S. company’s highly sensitive, proprietary, and export-controlled materials—including data from projects outside his scope or access.

Upon his return to the United States from China, the Chinese citizen was found in possession of several suspicious doc- uments containing Chinese characters and $10,000 in cash. Weeks later, he tried departing the United States for China with export-controlled and proprietary documents. The documents contained information on the U.S. Air Force’s Metal Affordability Initiative. The U.S. Air Force declared the documents in the Chinese citizen’s possession could have com- promised broader research and development efforts worth approximately $3.6 million.


Lessons Learned: Vulnerabilities and Indicators EGO. The Chinese citizen was willing to provide con- trolled information to unauthorized personnel in order to advance his own career. DIVIDED LOYALTY TO A COUNTRY. As a result of his desire to assist China, he was susceptible to being tasked by Chinese government agencies and state- owned enterprises. LARGE AMOUNTS OF CASH. Upon entering the Unit- ed States from China, the Chinese citizen was carrying $10,000 in cash. POSSESSED CONTROLLED MATERIAL. The Chinese citizen used a company-issued computer and hard drive to carry highly sensitive, proprietary, and export-con- trolled materials to China. UNREPORTED FOREIGN CONTACT. The Chinese cit- izen did not notify his employer about his foreign contact with officials at the Chinese Academy of Science.


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