Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Chinese postdoc arrested for economic espionage in Wisconsin

Via Deborah Blum, the story of a really dumb really unwise postdoc:
A researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin has been charged with stealing a possible cancer-fighting compound and research data that led to its development, all to benefit a Chinese university. Huajun Zhao, 42, faces a single count of economic espionage, according to a federal criminal complaint, an offense punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. 
Zhao was arrested Saturday and held without bail over the weekend pending a detention hearing in Milwaukee federal court on Monday, when he was ordered detained until trial. No date has been set. 
According to the complaint, Zhao worked as an associate researcher at the college, assisting professor Marshall Anderson by conducting experiments in pharmacology. On Feb. 22, Anderson set down three pill bottle-size containers of a cancer research compound called C-25, and later noticed they were missing from his desk. After searching extensively for the bottles, he reported them lost or stolen on Feb. 26. 
The next day, security video showed Zhao entering Anderson's office on Feb. 22, and leaving shortly after. No one else was seen entering the office on the videos. Security officials questioned Zhao, who didn't admit or deny taking the compound, but said he couldn't understand the questions, and that, regardless, everything would be resolved in 10 days.  
The public safety manager of the college, Jessica Luedtke, contacted the FBI. She said Zhao had been disciplined months earlier for putting lab data on his personal computer. The college staff also discovered that on a professional researcher's website, Zhao claimed to have discovered a cancer-fighting compound that he wanted to bring back to China, where he had been from December till mid-February...
The story only gets better:
On March 1, Zhao met with Anderson, college security and the FBI to go over his computer, hard drive and flash drive, where 384 items related to Anderson's C-25 research were discovered and deleted. He also had some research from another professor in the Hematology/Oncology department, without permission. 
Among Zhao's paperwork, investigators found more C-25 research and a grant application, written in Mandarin, claiming he had discovered the compound and seeking more Chinese funding to continue research. Anderson observed the application was identical to one he had submitted years earlier, in English. 
During the same March 1 review, college security informed the FBI that after his suspension on Feb. 27, Zhao had remotely accessed the Medical College servers and deleted Anderson's raw data from the C-25 research, information the college was later able to restore. 
Zhao denied stealing any research or deleting data, and again said he did not understand the questions, though his co-workers told investigators Zhao spoke excellent English and had lived in the United States several years. Finally, on Thursday, agents served a search warrant at Zhao's apartment and recovered a receipt for a package he sent to his wife in China on Feb. 28, the day after he was suspended from the Medical College. 
They also found that Zhao had purchased, on Feb. 3 and Feb. 17, identical airline tickets to China from Chicago for April 2. Asked about C-25, a spokeswoman for the Medical College said "it is being studied to see if it can assist cancer drugs in killing cancer cells and not damaging 'normal' cells," but declined further comment on the case. 
According to Zhao's LinkedIn page, he has worked at the Medical College of Wisconsin since August 2011, and before that spent four years at the University of Cincinnati as a postdoctoral fellow doing breast cancer research. From December 2006 to July 2007 he did cancer research at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa. 
The headline should really read: "Dumb Postdoc reaches for assistant prof job, tenure in home country with lead compound." I think the odds suggest that C-25 does not have significant future economic value (certainly not $500,000). It would be interesting to know if it might be worth decent grant money in China. Conducting intellectual property crime via computer is unwise; at least, you should be a lot better at covering your tracks than it seems Dr. Zhao was.

Assuming that this report is complete (unlikely) and that the actions of Dr. Zhao are accurately described (probably true), it seems fairly clear that he was up to no good. It seems to me that this was a fairly run-of-the-mill example of the Money part of the MICE (Money, Ideology, Compromise, Ego) explanation for why people conduct espionage. Assuming the case doesn't fall apart, he's headed for prison; they don't joke about federal trials being long guilty pleas for nothing.

Here's the funny thing, though: Would it not have been better to let Dr. Zhao go, and see how far he could get in China with stolen IP? Why openly burn him when you could see how the Chinese system works and whether or not Zhejiang University (where Dr. Zhao seemingly obtained an assistant professor slot and not a insignificant school, I note) would have found him out and thrown him out? Sigh; the FBI is not known for its creative thinking.

UPDATE 11182013: Changing some language in the post to remove negative comments. 

28 comments:

  1. Considering how the Chinese government has punished perpetrators of economic crimes against the Chinese state (bullets have been previously employed), I wouldn't think stealing, lying, and taking gov't cash at a uni would be a great idea.

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  2. Or would he get a medal for liberating essential data from the imperialist running dogs? You have to wonder how much of this stuff is going on every day.

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  3. On an unrelated note (pertinent to this blog, but not this particular story), did anyone else notice that this guy had been a postdoc for 6 years at the time he was caught? I know people in biological disciplines do longer postdocs, but that's still a very long time to be stuck doing postdocs.

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    1. To the best of my knowledge, the Chinese and Indian postdoctoral fellows duke it out longer! I mean they are there until they get some job which pays them more/stability for their families. It is a very sad situation but it is what it is!

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    2. Yes, I agree. Companies are now very reluctant to pay visa costs so all non-citizens are affected. Chinese and Indian get the worst of it because there are so many of them in this country. I worked with some very good Chinese and Indian postdocs, all of them had to do long/multiple postdocs before they could even land positions like adjunct professor. This guy was 42 and still a postdoc, at what point was he going to start a career? Americans don't necessarily have it much better; in biology if you do a 6 year PhD and a 5 year postdoc, you'll be in your 30's before you can even look for your first job ever!

      I'm not trying to defend this guy and what he did, but the situation reminded me of some of my colleagues who I see languishing in the postdoc cycle.

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    3. If you are any good, and if you are willing invest in your future, getting a green card on your own is relatively simple.

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    4. It's also not cheap. And as I said, harder for some than others due to large numbers of them being in the country, all wanting green cards.

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    5. Why would it be harder? These are not family-based green cards, they are not subject to country limits and priority dates. Not cheap? 10 years ago when I knew a ton of people applying, the going rate was under 3K, fees included. It may be 6 or 8 now, but it is still pretty cheap, when you consider what you are getting in return.

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    6. Sorry for the delayed response. You're right, prices have gone up and they're closer to $6K/person. As far as I know, this does not include lawyer fees, which can easily double the cost. If you're a postdoc in your 40's, odds are you have a family and you have to pay for them too.

      "What you are getting in return" is not as great as it used to be. You just get to jump into the overcrowded pool of permanent residents/citizens who are also looking for work. It's probably still better than needing visa support (which most companies now refuse to pay), but is it worth $6K? I don't think I can say that as easily as I used to.

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    7. I guess it depends on how much you don't want to go back to your home country.

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    8. Bingo. Opportunities for some people are still worth it. But considering the US is offshoring a lot of our jobs to China and India, is it worth it for Chinese and Indians to work so hard for US permanent residency/citizenship? Not sure.

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  4. Yes (in reference to your last question), that would have been interesting but it might have become pretty hard to track Zhao and his actions once he disappeared in China.

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  5. CoulombicExplosionApril 2, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    CJ's all about the dangerous games.

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  6. CJ:....why openly burn him when you could see how the Chinese system works..? You must be kidding. We all know how the system works dude. They send you here at the government expense and then you steal. My point, he has been planning it for sometime! Let me also tell you that the Chinese system prepares you to be loyal to your motherland, period. I am telling you that he could have been welcomed with part and such. All cut short now.

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  7. If he was sent to Guantanamo this problem might stop.

    Well, maybe not.

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  8. Anonymous @ 13:54... "loyal to your motherland"? Not even close to as much as the American system. Okay you seem to be correct that there is a disproportionate number of IP thieves from China. This clearly isn't the cause though.

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  9. If this guy was a sneaky bastard looking to rip someone off then I think he deserves to get crucified.

    I would be more concerned about borderline cases: There was Indian dude at a custom synthesis company in Utah few years back who proposed to his employers that he could get someone to manufacture their intermediates in bulk for them cheaply in India. The superiors authorized him do this but later they were not pleased with the quality of the stuff from India and they developed reservations about his abilities and started to suspect his intentions. He apparently did not tell them how closely he was involved with these people in India and that he was actually going to be a co-owner of a small custom synthesis company that he was starting together with his friends and relatives. At some point his coworkers in Utah noticed that he was working on the design of his new website during work-time saw him copying some synthetic procedure from company electronic notebook files and sending them to outside, to his private e-mail address. So the company looked into his private e-mail account and found an exchange with another dude in India - who was excitedly enumerating how much money they could make in the future on these compounds, by selling them independently of the Utah employers. At this point the guy got fired, arrested and charged with industrial espionage. The federal court was actually quite reasonable and let him out on a bail. His former employers went out of their way claiming they caught him in attempt to steal their trade secrets while he was claiming that he did not intend to rip them off and only forwarded few procedures that were in public domain already, and claimed that he thought he had authorization for the collaboration. In the end, the feds dropped the industrial espionage charges (all 30 of them) in exchange for guilty plea on one count of unauthorized computer access. His sentencing is dragging on and he could still get slapped with the industrial espionage-related jail time if the judge decides that based on "preponderance of evidence" rather than higher "beyond the reasonable doubt" standard the dude stole trade secrets for personal gain. So there was a weeklong hearing where two defense experts tried to prove the synthetic procedures were not secret because they were in public domain, and the company and the prosecution experts were countering them with notion that these procedures were indeed very secret and proprietary.
    Meanwhile, his former employers were apparently unhappy that he might avoid jail sentence so they got him also charged in a local state court in the same case, for simple the charges (for value exceeding 500k USD), and this got him re-arrested and he had to post a second bail.

    My reading of the Utah "espionage" story is that this guy was a complete moron, his ambition exceeded his abilities, and he put himself in serious conflict of interest situation which he handled poorly and his sketchy Indian partners made it look like some tremendous international industrial espionage conspiracy. His pissed former employer is all out to burn him and make an example of him. But to me he did not behave like a spy - he probably acted according to his dim lights and did not intend to damage his employers, while crossing so many lines...

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  10. I think the term postdoctoral "fellow" is a stupid name, FWIW. "Fellow" implies prestige.

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  11. As a scientist with ancestral roots in Switzerland and Ireland and as someone who has far more than a passing knowledge of intelligence, law enforcement, and theft of technology, it is entirely unfair to do a blanket characterization of all Chinese scientists as "they send you here at government expense and then you steal." The same statement could have been applied to all of the educated US and European people who were involved with China in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many were there to exploit, without any sense of shame, what China had to offer. But we also know that there were good people among these visitors in China and there are many good people among the Chinese who come to the US. Yes, some are paid to collect everything of technological value but many have the same simple aspirations we do and have received no instructions from the State to steal. I know nothing about Dr. Zhao or the particulars of his case but I cannot forget the fears expressed to me by a Chinese scientist visiting the US in 2010 as he recounted the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (magnitude 8.0) and he was unable to reach his wife and daughters in Chengdu. Like us, they want a place to call their own, pure food and water, and a better world for their children.

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    1. Great sentiment. It gives me an idea for getting back together with my ex since I just remembered she's probably from China because she tried to teach me some Cantonese words and said she was making "real Chinese food" when she was cooking something she wanted me to try. I can say 'hey, remember me? Well, I read in the comments section of a blog that Chinese people are normal human beings who care about families and stuff and I remembered that you're Chinese, so I take back all those things I said about you when you dumped me. Want to go out for some fake Chinese food?'

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    2. Well, I don't have ancestral roots in Switzerland or Ireland, and I don't have knowledge of intelligence law enforcement or theft of technology, but I agree with you that racism is unfair. And lets be clear, blanket statements about all Chinese scientists being out to steal is racist.

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    3. " The same statement could have been applied to all of the educated US and European people who were involved with China in the 19th and early 20th centuries."

      Hardly. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese modernization was barely underway. They didn't have much in the way of technology worth stealing. Not racist, just a couple of facts.

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  12. I have doubts that he would have been kicked out of his new assistant prof position in China even if found out. Look at what happened to the Chinese prof for outright plagiarism of journal articles: NOTHING except a meaningless slap on the wrist of an addendum to the article in Dalton Trans to the tune of, "by the way, we forgot to cite the original article by others which we copied and pasted text and figures from."

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  13. 1. No reliance can be placed on MCW’s evidence.

    (1) On February 22, 2013, I was summoned to a meeting with the 76-year-old full professor MA and MCW officials because of my lengthy absence. They set a schedule for me to finish my first authored manuscript about C25 before March 15, 2013. Sometime that same day, MA misplaced three pill bottle sized container s of C25 (actually only two bottles of C-25). On February 25, 2013, MCW officials sent an email to MCW employees reporting that MA had misplaced the bottles of C-25, indicating that MA believed he had left the pill bottles in a conference room. But later MA told MCW security that he put the compound in his office. So strange!

    (2) MA thought that C-25 would be damaged because I stored it at below zero for long-term storage. Such a funniest joke!

    (3) I posted a question for troubleshooting on researchgate, "We found a novel compound......", MA thought I offended his trade secret about C-25. So funny!

    (4) I didn’t apply for any Chinese fund about C-25.

    (5) There was no evidence that MCW had a patent of C-25. And also, MA didn’t apply for any grant of C-25.

    2. Substantially, MCW and MA attempted to deprive me of my credit and contribution.

    (1) February 27, 2013, MCW officials took my personal laptop and external drive and other personal property from me without my willing and I was suspended. On the evening of that same day, I thought that MCW officials’ action was illegal and was afraid of losing my own data including MA lab’s and my former lab’s. Also, Somebody told me that my laptop was still on my desk. So, I returned the lab. But I found that my personal property was gone, later, I found a flash drive to make a copy from my lab computer to protect my own data. This is so called “ accessing information without authorization from a protected computer”. Have to do like this for being released.

    (2) All research data was produced by myself. What I deleted was a old copy of my experimental data from my lab computer. So called "MCOW computer" and "protected computer" were my lab computer.

    3. On April 1,2013, I appeared again before Magistrate Judge Gorence and was ordered detained based on the risk of flight because I was a Chinese. No bail!

    4. And also, in the first two weeks, jail officials deprived me of my correspondence right.

    5. “There is no evidence that the defendant was attempting to commit fraud or to profit from his conduct in this case. Nor is there any evidence demonstrating that the defendant intended to cause any loss to the victim or to anyone else. It appears that the defendant was trying to protect data which he helped compile relating to cancer research. “ from Judge Charles N. Clevert.

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    1. Dr. Zhao, please contact me at chemjobber@gmail.com. I would like to talk to you, if possible.

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  14. Well, maybe there was more to the story than just rushing to judgement.

    CJ, i see that you posted "*UPDATE: 11/11/2013, 6:31 Eastern: While it may be a distinction without a difference, it was wrong of me and overly personal to refer to Mr. Atkinson as "stupid", as opposed to his statement. My apologies to Mr. Atkinson. Once again, though, I wildly disagree with his statement and its logic." last week after you made a mild comment about this speaker, but looking up here i see you refer to Dr Zhao as "dumb" (twice) and "up to no good." Looking at this reply, should we say that there's more to the story than taking the word of an elderly professor who left his lead compound laying around ?

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    1. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you, bw.

      Re, more to the story, maybe, maybe not. My understanding of the situation does not corroborate the comment. Nevertheless, I would like to hear from Dr. Zhao.

      Regarding your comments on my language, I think you are more right than wrong. Where I erred with Mr. Atkinson (and with Dr. Zhao), is that I focused my negative comments on Dr. Zhao, and not on his actions. The thing that I try to do is to focus my ire on the statement/action, and not the individual.

      If you see me make this mistake elsewhere, feel free to bring it up. I feel it's important to be held accountable.

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    2. I tease because i know you care, CJ. It was a little odd looking at this older entry and seeing your comments, which i know you are usually more careful with. Conversely i'm not exactly known for my tact.

      Yes, it did sound like a fairly clear story according to the medical school, but it is interesting to see there is always another point of view. Please post any updates of Dr Zhao's comments or the case in general.

      Thanks as always!

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