A 35-year-old Chinese national and U.S. legal permanent resident, pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing trade secrets from Phillips 66.
Hongjin Tan stole information regarding the manufacture of a “research and development downstream energy market product” that is worth more than $1 billion, according to the Department of Justice.
Tan was employed as an associate scientist for Phillips 66 starting in June 2017 until his arrest in December 2018.
He worked on developing next generation battery technologies for stationary energy storage, specifically flow batteries. In his plea agreement, Tan admitted to intentionally copying and downloading research and development materials without authorization from his employer.
On Dec. 11, 2018, Tan used a thumb drive to copy hundreds of files. He subsequently turned in his resignation and was escorted from the premises on Dec. 12, 2018.
Later that day, he returned the thumb drive, claiming that he had forgotten to do so before leaving his employer’s property.
Upon examination, it was discovered that the thumb drive was missing five documents that had previously been deleted.
FBI investigators found an external hard drive at Tan's home and discovered that the missing files had been downloaded to the hard drive.
Tan maintained the files on a hard drive so he could access the data at a later date. Further accessing the material would have been financially advantageous for Tan but caused significant financial damage to his Oklahoma employer.
He pleaded guilty to theft of a trade secret, unauthorized transmission of a trade secret, and unauthorized possession of a trade secret.
“China’s economic aggression poses a threat to America’s emerging high-technology industries. Industrial spies like Hongjin Tan engage in espionage to steal American trade secrets and intellectual property born out of the innovation that is innate in our free market system,” said U.S. Attorney Trent Shores for the Northern District of Oklahoma, in a statement.