The sample looked like an ordinary piece of glass, 4 inches square and transparent on both sides. It'd been packed like the precious specimen its inventor, Adam Khan, believed it to be--placed on wax paper, nestled in a tray lined with silicon gel, enclosed in a plastic case, surrounded by air bags, sealed in a cardboard box--and then sent for testing to a laboratory in San Diego owned by Huawei Technologies Co. But when the sample came back last August, months late and badly damaged, Khan knew something was terribly wrong. Was the Chinese company trying to steal his technology?


This investigation, which hasn't previously been made public, is separate from the recently announced grand jury indictments against Huawei. On Jan. 28, federal prosecutors in Brooklyn charged the company and its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, with multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy. In a separate case, prosecutors in Seattle charged Huawei with theft of trade secrets, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice, claiming that one of its employees stole a part from a robot, known as Tappy, at a T-Mobile US Inc. facility in Bellevue, Wash. "These charges lay bare Huawei's alleged blatant disregard for the laws of our country and standard global business practices," Christopher Wray, the FBI director, said in a press release accompanying the Jan. 28 indictments. "Today should serve as a warning that we will not tolerate businesses that violate our laws, obstruct justice, or jeopardize national and economic well-being." Huawei has denied the charges.

If the new investigation bears fruit, it could, along with the indictments, bolster the Trump administration's effort to block Huawei from selling equipment for fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless networks in the U.S. and allied nations. The U.S. believes Huawei poses a national security threat, in part, because it could build undetectable backdoors into 5G hardware and software, allowing the Chinese government to spy on American communications and wage cyberwarfare. Huawei has said this is political posturing aimed at harming a Chinese company, and skeptics have pointed out that the T-Mobile allegation has since been settled in civil court and concerns events that played out more than a half-decade ago. "If Tappy is as far as they've gotten on [intellectual property] theft, that seems to be pretty thin gruel," Adam Segal, a cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations told the Washington Post recently.

... if the government does conclude that Akhan was attacked, that a Chinese multinational really did target a tiny Chicago company with no revenue and no customers (as of yet), it would show just how far and wide Huawei is willing to go to steal American trade secrets. "I think they're identifying technologies that are key to their road map and going after them no matter what the size or scale or status of the business," Khan says. "I wouldn't say they're discriminating."''

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