US indictment: Chinese firm stole Motorola trade secrets

CHICAGO (AP) — A federal indictment unsealed Monday accuses a Chinese telecommunications company of stealing technology from Illinois-based Motorola Solutions Inc., in another case highlighting longstanding fears about China pilfering vital U.S. business secrets to bolster its own economy.

The Chicago filing charges Hytera Communications Corp., Ltd., with conspiracy to commit theft of trade secrets, alleging it recruited several Motorola employees as part of the scheme. They are accused of accessing Motorola’s internal database, then described and even joked about plans to use the stolen material at Hytera.

The secrets regard digital mobile radio technology Motorola developed for walkie-talkie type features on cellphones. For over a decade, from 2007 to 2020, Hytera used thousands of stolen documents to accelerate its development of similar features, the indictment says.

In a 2008 email cited in the indictment, one unnamed individual writes to another that, “We are trying to grab whatever we can. … Do you have anything in mind that you need while we are still here?” In another, someone writes “haha” after describing Hytera as copying Motorola technology. One email expresses concern, saying “some of our lies may cause problems once Motorola finds out.”

Hytera’s website says the company has 10 development centers in China, Germany, Great Britain, Spain and Canada. The Shenzhen, China, also says some of its two-way radios are being used by security at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

A message seeking comment from Hytera left at its Canadian office wasn’t returned.

The 21-count indictment also charges Hytera and individual suspects with possession or attempted possession of stolen trade secrets. The heavily redacted document doesn’t identify other charged defendants and a statement from the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago announcing the charges doesn’t say if any reside in the U.S.

If ever convicted, Hytera would face a criminal fine of three times the value of the stolen trade secrets and individual defendants could go to prison. But U.S. authorities are often unable to bring suspects to court in cases involving Chinese firms because China is unwilling to hand them over.

A Chinese-born American software developer, Hanjuan Jin, was convicted in 2012 of stealing secrets from Motorola. Jin, a naturalized U.S. citizen, was acquitted of more serious charges of economic espionage. A federal judge later sentenced her to four years in prison, a sentence prosecutors said at the time should send a message to those tempted to steal U.S. trade secrets.

The new indictment doesn’t name Jin. The U.S. attorney’s office statement also doesn’t refer to her. Many of the allegations in her case, however, were similar to ones made in the Hytera indictment.

At trial, prosecutors said Jin “led a double life” as an outwardly loyal company worker plotting to steal Motorola secrets. Even before downloading Motorola files over several days in 2007, prosecutors said Jin already worked for China-based Sun Kaisens.

Over 1,000 confidential Motorola documents she stole, including about its walkie-talkie feature, were discovered during a random security check at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, where Jin had arrived with a one-way ticket to China.

Michael Tarm
Michael Tarm
AP Legal Affairs Writer, with a focus on the death penalty.