A San Bernardino County man was arrested earlier this month on allegations that he stole sensitive software from his employers in the United States with the intended purpose of using it to aid competing businesses in China.
Liming Li, 64, of Rancho Cucamonga, was arrested on May 6 after he landed at the Ontario International Airport after arriving on a flight from Taiwan.
Li is accused of stealing thousands of files of sensitive technology from his employers, which he then used to help foreign companies create competing technology.
Among those products, according to the United States Department of Justice, the technology could be used in the manufacturing of nuclear submarines and military aircraft.
Charging documents indicate that Li worked in various engineering and software development roles for two Southern California companies from 1996 to 2019.
The companies developed software programs that used “high precision measurement studies interpretation and point cloud technology,” which is often used to make 3D models, the DOJ said.
Federal law dictates that because the technology is considered “sensitive,” it’s subject to U.S. export controls for the reason of national security, nuclear nonproliferation and anti-terrorism concerns. Specifically, federal law does not allow this type of technology to be exported to China without a license from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Li and his wife started their own company from their home in 2018 after he was terminated by his employer of 22 years.
He was then hired by a second company, but was terminated after the discovery that he had been downloading sensitive items to his work computer.
The files were placed in a folder entitled “ChinaGovernment,” the DOJ said. It’s theorized that Li was trying to participate in China’s “Thousand Talents Plan,” which recruits people, particularly Chinese citizens, who are experts in the fields of science and technology.
Court documents allege that Li tried to use the stolen technology to boost his own business and provide services to government entities and businesses in China.
In March 2020, he was named chief technology officer of a Chinese company, which required him to spend at least six months per year in China.
Six months after he was appointed CTO of the company, FBI agents served a search warrant at his home and found several digital devices that contained millions of files belonging to his previous employers, including the source code for the companies’ proprietary software.
The case against Li is one of the first to be filed by federal prosecutors following investigation from a unified task force that aims to counter efforts from hostile foreign nations that try to smuggle important technology and information from the U.S.
“Li stole thousands of files of sensitive technology that did not belong to him and used it to help foreign companies build competing technology,” said United States Attorney Martin Estrada. “Protecting our nation’s national security is paramount, and my office will aggressively investigate and prosecute those who misappropriate sensitive intellectual property to the benefit of foreign actors.”
FBI Assistant Director in Charge Donald Alway said hostile nations using stolen proprietary information not only affects American businesses, but also destabilizes the nation’s economic security.
“Foreign adversaries, including the Chinese government, actively seek to erode American competitiveness in the global economy, diminish trust in fair market competition, and use stolen knowledge to increase their military modernization capabilities,” Alway said, adding that his office takes national security and the protection of critical technology “extremely seriously.”
Since his arrest, Li has been in federal custody and is due in court on May 22 to face charges for theft of trade secrets. If convicted, he could face 10 years in federal prison.