In today’s competitive business world, companies typically go to great lengths to protect their intellectual property. Ideas have tremendous monetary value, and many businesses require their employees to sign non-compete and non-disclosure agreements that prohibit them from stealing trade secrets or sharing insider information with competitors or in some cases anyone else. In fact, reports say that intellectual property can make up about 80 percent of a business’s value.
When an employee violates a non-disclosure agreement, they can face a civil lawsuit, which can result in the employee being required by law to pay financial damages to their employer.
Additionally, employees who steal ideas from their employers may also face criminal prosecution under federal law. The theft of trade secrets can be a crime under both federal and state law. If convicted, individuals who steal trade secrets can be required to pay serious fines and even spend time in federal prison.
This situation is exactly what happened in the case of an Apple engineer who allegedly stole information about the company’s electric car project with the intent of sharing it with a Chinese competitor. The engineer could face up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000 under the Economic Espionage Act (EEA).
Engineer Allegedly Stole Autonomous Car Trade Secrets
According to reports, the engineer worked for Apple between 2015 and 2018, with much of his work focused on the company’s development of a self-driving car. The autonomous vehicle project was extremely secretive, as there continues to be a great deal of competition surrounding the self-driving car industry.
Reports say the engineer was in charge of designing and testing circuit boards for the autonomous vehicle. After taking a month of paternity leave, the engineer told Apple he was leaving the company to go work for a startup self-driving car company in China. He also said he wanted to spend more time with his family in his native country China.
Reports state that the engineer’s behavior seemed suspicious to supervisors, who took a closer look at his behavior on the company’s campus. An internal investigation revealed that his activity on the company’s computer network “increased exponentially” near the end of his tenure compared to earlier years of employment.
Apple also learned that the engineer had started downloading information in bulk and copying pages of data from confidential databases. Closed circuit television also showed him carrying equipment from the company’s autonomous vehicle lab.
The company contacted the FBI, which conducted its own investigation. The FBI stopped the engineer at the airport as he prepared to board a plane to China. When law enforcement agents confronted him, he admitted that he had stolen trade secrets with the intention of sharing them with a Chinese self-driving car company.
Stealing Trade Secrets Is a Federal Crime
In addition to civil penalties, an individual who steals trade secrets from an employer may also face criminal charges. Taking intellectual property from a business is a crime under federal law, and it can also be a crime under state law.
One of the main federal statutes that address the theft of intellectual property is the Economic Espionage Act (EEA) of 1996. Under the EEA, the federal government has the authority to investigate and prosecute individuals accused of stealing, copying, or receiving intellectual property, which includes trade secrets.
If a person is convicted of stealing trade secrets under the EEA, they can face serious consequences, including a maximum fine of $500,000. When the party accused of stealing trade secrets is a corporation, the fine can be as high as $5 million.
Individuals convicted of intellectual property theft can also be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. They may also be required to turn over any profits they made as a result of the theft. In cases where the employee or company carried out the theft at the direction of a foreign government to help another country, the maximum prison sentence increases to 15 years.
The theft of intellectual property is a white-collar crime, which is a term used to describe financial crimes. Generally, these offenses are non-violent. However, they can still cause a great deal of harm, especially when large amounts of money are involved. In the case of a project like the development of new technology, white-collar crime can result in the loss of millions of dollars. Companies can miss out on opportunities to enter a new market, which can negatively impact their bottom line for many years.
In recent years, federal prosecutors have pursued white-collar crimes aggressively. The penalties for offenses like the theft of trade secrets can result in a lengthy prison sentence and serious fines. Anyone who has been charged with stealing trade secrets should speak to a federal criminal defense attorney about their case.
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