A Chinese national has been sentenced to two years in prison for the theft of American owned trade secrets worth a reported $1 billion. A US court found Hongjin Tan, 36, guilty of theft of trade secrets and the unauthorised possession and transmission of a trade secret.

Pleading guilty to the charges, the scientist had started working at a U.S. petroleum company in 2017 up until his arrest in late 2018. Having been assigned to work on the development of next generation battery technology, Tan was found to have transferred hundreds of files onto a thumb drive with the intent to sell the information to a rival Chinese company.

Stealing the confidential information the day before his resignation, Tan failed to sufficiently deceive his employers. Upon examination it was found that files on his company thumb drive had been altered and thus, his actions betrayed. Investigators from the FBI later found these sensitive files on a hard drive located in Tan’s residence. 

“Thanks to a vigilant company and the investigative efforts of the FBI, Hongjin Tan was caught red handed and prosecuted”

Trent Shores, U.S. Attorney  – Northern District of Oklahoma

Phillips 66 , Tan’s employer, had grown suspicious when the insider threat had informed them that he was returning home to take care of elderly parents. It was eventually discovered that he had in fact secured a role at a rival energy development organisation.

As well as having to serve two years in prison, the malicious insider was also ordered to pay £150,000 in restitution as well as three years on probation following his release.

Yet another example of the dangers that insider threats can represent; this case once again highlights the necessity of comprehensive information security training. Without the protocols and vigilance displayed, it is possible that Hongjin Tan may have successfully aided a rival organisation; the consequences of which could have caused significant financial damage.

Of course, the theft of intellectual property can not only damage a specific organisation, but can impact entire industries, should it become non-viable to compete with an unscrupulous and illegal corporate strategy of espionage and theft.

John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security, said of the sentencing, “Tan’s guilty plea continues to fill in the picture of China’s theft of American intellectual property.” Adding, “the Department of Justice will continue to confront this type of illicit behaviour to safeguard American industry.”

It is reported that upwards of 60% of organisations have experienced an insider threat or multiple attacks, with 70% observing insider attacks becoming more frequent. Yet another growing information security threat.

With only 23% of UK workers having received any form of information security awareness training from their employer, organisations are gambling with their future by not doing all they can to mitigate the risk of insider threats, as well as many other information security weaknesses.