• United States



Christopher Burgess
Contributing Writer

China’s theft of IBM’s intellectual property

May 22, 20174 mins
CybercrimeData and Information SecuritySecurity

A former employee of IBM pleaded guilty to theft of source code on behalf of China

China continues to view the theft of intellectual property as a viable means of technology transfer. Global private sector entities are finding their insiders are being used by China to purloin the proprietary information for use by Chinese state-owned-enterprises or national entities with ever increasing regularity.

On 19 May 2017, Xu Jiaqiang, a PRC national, pleaded guilty to economic espionage and trade secret theft. Xu stole source code from his employer, IBM, and attempted to share it with the National Health and Family Planning Commission in the PRC.  According to the Department of Justice, Xu pleaded guilty to all six of the counts included in his indictment.

A review of Xu’s Linked-In profile shows only his employment with IBM from November 2010 through July 2014 (date is different from that which is contained in the indictment) as a “General Parallel File System Developer at IBM”

Xu was a trusted insider within IBM. According to the DOJ advisory, which contained content from both the criminal complaint and superseding indictment, Xu worked for IBM from 2010-14, with unencumbered access to the “proprietary source code.” DOJ advises, Xu voluntarily resigned from IBM in May 2014. 

In late 2014, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was informed (source unidentified) that Xu claimed to have access (unauthorized) to the source code and was using the source code in various business ventures. Undercover law enforcement officers subsequently contacted Xu to affirm Xu’s possession of the source code

The criminal complaint describes undercover officers posing as investors engaged in a multi-month email exchanges with Xu which culminated in his sharing portions of the source code as bonafides of his knowledge of “operating systems and parallel file systems.”  At that time, the victim company, IBM, identified the shared code as identical to their proprietary source code.

In late-2015, Xu had a face-to-face meeting with undercover law enforcement officers. At the meeting, Xu noted the code was his former employer’ s(IBM) code. Xu also confirmed to his interlocutors how he had purloined the code prior to his May 2014 employment separation and had made modification so as to obscure the point of origin, IBM.

In June 2016, Xu was indicted and charged with three counts of economic espionage, one count each of theft of trade secrets, possession of trade secrets, and distribution of trade secrets. He will be sentenced in October 2017.

Though IBM has declined comment to media regarding this theft of their intellectual property, reading between the lines, it would appear IBM had deduced (correctly) that Xu absconded with a copy of their GPFS proprietary source code, and was attempting to use it commercially. They then brought the theft to the attention of the FBI.

Illicit technology transfer

China has not slowed down in their acquisition of technology utilizing the access afforded to trusted insiders. The US Director of National Intelligence made it clear in his May 2017 presentation to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on the worldwide threat to the United States as to the threat posed by China.

In April 2017, we saw the arrest of a Dutch employee of Siemens, working within the energy arm of Siemens, charged with stealing the intellectual property of his employer and attempting to share it with China.

From the FBI perspective, this was the perfect economic espionage case. Theft of proprietary information for provision to a foreign government. The theft was from a company with an insider threat program in place and who was cooperative (providing technical expertise during the investigation), and of sufficient size to withstand any blow-back from China which may occur.

There is no need to be xenophobic. Multinational companies employee individuals from a great variety of nationalities. The reality is, few employees break trust with their employer.

That said, having your paper trail on agreements which safeguard intellectual property is mandatory. As is a review of all activities of all departing employees for break from pattern, be it a voluntary separation or for cause. If a deeper dive into the employees activities is warranted, make sure to look for any sudden increase in 403 errors – or similar (caused by attempts to access unauthorized data). Verify the complete inventory of all storage devices which the employee may have accessed, and have each returned and or data on the devices destroyed, and review email and uploads for any inappropriate usage.

Remember, though it is the FBI and DOJ success which brought Xu to our collective attention, it was not the FBI who initially discovered Xu’s intellectual property theft. The FBI pursued the lead brought to them by an unidentified third party (presumably IBM).

You are your company’s first line of defense in the protection of intellectual property, not the FBI.

Christopher Burgess
Contributing Writer

Christopher Burgess is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former senior security advisor to Cisco, and has also been a CEO/COO with various startups in the data and security spaces. He served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Cisco gave him a stetson and a bottle of single-barrel Jack upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit, Senior Online Safety.

More from this author