University-Industry Engagement Week

FBI: Chinese researcher caught trying to fly to China with stolen bio-inspired computer code

By David Schwartz
Published: September 1st, 2020

A University of Virginia researcher linked to the Chinese military was nabbed by U.S. authorities at the airport attempting to flee to China with computer code, stolen from a university lab, that could be used for underwater robots and aircraft engines, according to the FBI.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection stopped Hu Haizhou, a researcher in UVA’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, after discovering his work for a Chinese military-linked university, before he could board a flight to Qingdao, China, from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The FBI released those details and allegations in an 11-page affidavit filed in federal court in Virginia.

According FBI agent Matthew Rader, CBP investigators questioned Hu and searched his electronic devices, which revealed files with UVA research data stored on his laptop, including “bio-inspired research simulation software code.” Bio-inspired research relates to studying the complexities of flying and swimming creatures in nature and applying that to manned flight or submersibles — often with military applications.

An unnamed UVA professor who runs the multi-university Flow Simulations Group has been developing this code for the last 17 years and is sponsored by the U.S. government’s National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. The FBI special agent said that probable cause existed to arrest and charge Hu federal crimes including fraud-related illicit computer intrusions and the theft of trade secrets.

Hu had worked for the UVA professor from March through August 2019, and the professor told investigators that Hu had left the university abruptly to return to China without saying goodbye. According to the FBI, Hu admitted that he also works for the Chinese Key Laboratory for Fluid Dynamics at China’s Beihang University, which receives funding from the Chinese government as well as specifically from the Chinese air force. Hu had seen the professor give a lecture at the Chinese university in 2017 and had approached the professor to do research for him in the U.S. Hu had also attended China’s Harbin University, where he worked for its Key Laboratory for Underwater Robot Technology, which he admitted was funded by China’s People’s Liberation Army, the affidavit said.

Hu told the FBI investigators that “he was directed by the Chinese Scholarship Council to upload summary reports regarding his UVA research every 6 months,” Rader said. Hu told investigators he was trying to take all of his UVA research with him to China.

Investigators found approximately 9,600 source code files on Hu’s laptop tied to “bio-inspired learning, research, and modeling,” which the UVA professor they were taken said included proprietary “core code.” The professor alleged that the stolen files “constituted the entirety of his core code he had been developing over the last 17 years.”

The professor said he received many requests to use the code but “has not shared it because he wishes to maintain his — and the University of Virginia’s — unique competitive advantage in conducting research in the bio-inspired fluid mechanics field.” The professor “was extremely concerned with the prospect of his core code being taken for use outside his research lab, as it … could be exploited for various commercial, governmental and military applications by other entities, including universities, companies, or countries,” the affidavit said.

“The University of Virginia is aware of the arrest and charges against a former visiting scholar,” said Wesley Hester, director of media relations at UVA. “We have been and continue to cooperate fully with law enforcement in connection with the investigation of theft of university trade secrets. Because this remains an active and ongoing criminal investigation, we will have no further comment at this time.”

Source: Washington Examiner

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