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FBI Agent: Ex-Monsanto Employee Stole Trade Secrets

by Chris Brook on Tuesday November 19, 2019

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When he was first detained at the airport, the employee was found with six files containing trade secret data on a storage device connected to his laptop.

A former employee of Monsanto, the agrochemical behemoth, was finally arrested this week, years after he reportedly stole company documents pertaining to a special, proprietary algorithm.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which broke news on the arrest Monday, Haitao Xiang, an advanced imaging scientist at Monsanto was attempting to take six files containing trade secret information to China on a storage device connected to his laptop when he was apprehended.

The arrest has been in the works for quite some time; Xiang was first detained by the FBI in Chicago, at O'Hare International Airport while trying to board a flight to Shanghai, China, more than two years ago.

While the arrest took over two years – prosecutors wanted Xiang held in jail, claiming he’s a flight risk – a swift end may be in sight: According to the paper, the case will go in front of a grand jury on Wednesday.

Per an affidavit filed last week, Xiang worked for both Monsanto, headquartered in St. Louis, and an affiliate, The Climate Corporation - a company that bills itself as a digital agriculture company that aggregates weather, soil, and field data for farmers, for nearly a decade, from 2008 to 2017.

In his roles there he worked on an online platform dubbed the Nutrient Optimizer, which relied on a proprietary algorithm to gauge what nutrients farmers should use on their fields.

It wasn't until about three or four years ago that it sounds like Xiang was beginning to get cold feet at the companies. After looking for jobs in China from 2015-2017, he eventually was offered a managerial position at the Chinese Academy of Science’s Nanjing Institute of Soil Science in August 2016. He waited months - until May 2017 - to tell both companies he was planning to resign the next month, on June 9.

On the way out Xiang told admins at the company that he didn't keep any company documents, data, or storage devices, but did acknowledge taking his company laptop to China the summer before.

While this almost assuredly piqued Monsanto’s interest, it wasn’t until the company began to review Xiang's computer activity, which included searches for "company information to the third party" and "as evidence to accuse me," that the FBI got involved.

Upon meeting Xiang at the gates to a flight to China, FBI found six files containing Monsanto and TCC data, including the Nutrient Optimizer.

While the Post-Dispatch piece suggests Xiang may have taken data beginning in 2015, a criminal complaint filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri suggests Xiang violated 18 U.S.C. Section 1832, or the Conspiracy to Commit Theft of Trade Secrets and the Theft of Trade Secrets, from January 1, 2014 to August, 2017.

The complaint was signed by Jaret Depke, a Special Agent with the FBI that investigated the case.

Despite the charges, Xiang is maintaining is innocence according the paper, which cites a conversation with his lawyer, Eric Selig, of Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry.

“The facts of the case are much more complicated than what the complaint would say,” Selig told the Post-Dispatch, “[he] anticipates the opportunity to investigate and prove his innocence.”

Tags: IP theft

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Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Data Insider. He is a technology journalist with a decade of experience writing about information security, hackers, and privacy. Chris has attended many infosec conferences and has interviewed hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site which is a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.