US ‘strike force’ charges Chinese and Russian nationals with stealing sensitive tech
The Justice Department on Tuesday announced a round of indictments accusing foreign nationals of attempting to illegally gain access to sensitive U.S. technologies, including the source code for Apple's autonomous driving system.
In another case, a Chinese national working for a pair of software companies in southern California allegedly stole the source code used in so-called “smart manufacturing” — advanced technology used in making parts for nuclear submarines and military aircraft — before setting up his own business in China and marketing the pilfered information to entities there.
The cases mark the inaugural round of enforcement actions by the Disruptive Technology Strike Force, a joint effort established earlier this year between the Justice and Commerce departments. The team includes 14 U.S. attorney offices across the country working to investigate and prosecute export control violations.
“Let me be clear, we are committed to doing all we can to prevent these advanced tools from falling into the hands of foreign adversaries who wield them in ways that threaten, not only our nation's security, but democratic values everywhere,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the head of the DOJ’s National Security Division, said during a press conference unveiling the charges.
The Biden administration has cranked up the use of export controls to prevent countries like China, Iran and especially Russia (following Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine) from procuring advanced technologies that are made with American software and components.
In the Apple case, Weibao Wang was a software engineer at the tech giant from 2016 to 2018 and worked on its Annotation Team, which gave him “broad access” to databases, according to the DOJ indictment. While at Apple, Wang accepted a job at the U.S.-based subsidiary of an unnamed Chinese company which was also developing autonomous driving technology.
Wang has been charged with six separate counts involving the theft or attempted theft of Apple’s “entire autonomy source code” as it existed at the time he left the company, tracking systems, behavior planning for autonomous systems and descriptions of the hardware that operated it.
Law enforcement executed a search of Wang’s home in California in the summer of 2018. That same evening, Wang boarded a flight to Guangzhou, China where he remains. He would face 10 years in prison for each count if extradited and convicted.
In the smart manufacturing case, the alleged culprit was arrested last week upon entering the country from a trip to China, U.S. Attorney for the Central District of California Martin Estrada said during the DOJ press conference.
In another complaint, a Greek national worked for years to procure highly controlled technologies, including quantum cryptography, for Moscow’s military and research and development. The defendant was arrested in France last week and could be extradited to the U.S.
“The message coming from our collective agencies could not be clearer: We are working in lockstep to protect American technology and to counter the threat posed by nation states seeking to exploit that technology to threaten our national security,” said Assistant Secretary for Export Enforcement Matthew Axelrod of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security.
Olsen defended the wide range represented in the separate cases, emphasizing the U.S. wanted to “prioritize” them even if some of the charges date back years.
“Are we going to stop every transfer of every sensitive technology? We're not going to get to zero,” he said of the months-old task force.
“But I think you're seeing in places like Russia, where the efforts of not only United States but our allies and partners around the world to prevent the transfer of technology to Russia in support of its war effort is having a significant and detrimental effect on the on the Russian economy and in particular on its military readiness. So I think it is having an impact.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that a Russian national was arrested for stealing highly controlled technologies like quantum cryptography. He was a Greek national who allegedly stole the technology for Russia.
Martin Matishak is a senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. He spent the last five years at Politico, where he covered Congress, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community and was a driving force behind the publication's cybersecurity newsletter.