Two engineers from China were sentenced to a year in prison Friday for stealing computer chip designs from their Silicon Valley employers and trying to smuggle the secrets to their homeland to start a government-backed company there.
Fei Ye, a U.S. citizen, and Ming Zhong, a permanent resident of the United States, had pleaded guilty in 2006 in San Jose federal court, becoming the first people convicted of the most serious crime under the Economic Espionage Act of 1996. They were accused of trying to benefit China with their stolen chip designs, although prosecutors did not allege that the Chinese government knew of their illegal activities.
Ye and Zhong could have gotten 30 years, but prosecutors asked for less because the men cooperated with investigators. Both engineers apologized in court Friday.
Only a handful of cases has been filed under the Economic Espionage law, mostly because it's difficult to prove someone was trying to benefit a foreign nation, even if investigators suspect it. Prosecutors say the trail of evidence often goes cold because of a lack of cooperation by other countries in investigations.
The case against Ye and Zhong stretches back seven years, when they were arrested at San Francisco International Airport trying to board a flight to China. Their luggage was allegedly stuffed with sensitive documents on chip designs stolen from four tech companies they had worked for.
Other papers seized from the men allegedly showed they were trying to solicit funding from Chinese government agencies to help get their startup going. Prosecutors say the documents showed that Ye and Zhong were promoting the startup as something that would elevate China's chipmaking smarts and help China compete better against other countries in microelectronics.
Ye and Zhong both had worked at Transmeta Corp. and Trident Microsystems Inc. Ye had also worked at NEC Electronics Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.