A man from China is facing up to 15 years in prison after admitting to stealing a trade secret from Monsanto, an international agrochemical firm based in St. Louis, Missouri, where he worked as an imaging scientist from 2008 to 2017.
Xiang Haitao, 44, is charged with stealing copies of the company’s “proprietary predictive algorithm” known as the Nutrient Optimizer, according to the Justice Department.
The Nutrient Optimizer is a key component of a farming software platform used to collect, store and visualize agricultural data and improve agricultural productivity.
Monsanto and subsidiary The Climate Corporation, which employed Xiang, considered the Nutrient Optimizer a valuable trade secret and an intellectual property.
A day after leaving the company in June 2017, Xiang attempted to return to China on a one-way ticket but was searched by federal officials. Investigators later found that one of Xiang’s devices contained copies of the Nutrient Optimizer.
Xiang was allowed to fly to China, where he worked for the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Soil Science, which is run by the Chinese government, but was arrested upon returning to the U.S.
On Jan. 6, Xiang pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit economic espionage. According to the Justice Department, he “faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 years, a potential fine of $5 million and a term of supervised release not exceeding three years.”
“Despite Xiang’s agreements to protect Monsanto’s intellectual property and repeated training on his obligations to do so, Xiang has now admitted that he stole a trade secret from Monsanto, transferred it to a memory card and attempted to take it to the People’s Republic of China for the benefit of Chinese government,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said. “With his guilty plea, Xiang is now being held accountable for this unlawful conduct.”
The U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) previously identified bioeconomy — alongside semiconductors, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and quantum information science and technology — as a sector of U.S. intelligence from which China is “trying to steal”, according to Insider.
“These sectors produce technologies that may determine whether America remains the world’s leading superpower or is eclipsed by strategic competitors in the next few years,” the NCSC said.
At the time of Xiang’s indictment in 2019, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman accused the U.S. of using the case to support its allegations of intellectual property theft against China.
“We resolutely oppose the U.S. side’s attempts to use the case, which we regard as an ordinary, isolated incident, to hype up claims of China’s organized and systematic attempts to steal intellectual property from the U.S.,” spokesman Geng Shuang said, according to VOA News.
Xiang is scheduled to be sentenced on April 7.