A seven-year legal battle came to a close when two former Silicon Valley engineers were sentenced to one-year prison sentences after being charged with federal economic espionage charges.
Ming Zhong, a permanent resident of the United States, and Fei Ye, a U.S. citizen, stole sensitive information from Sun Microsystems, Transmeta, NEC Electronics and Trident Microsystems in November 2001. They were caught at the airport with trade secrets from Sun and Transmeta only.
The pair was arrested at the San Francisco International Airport after attempting to leave the country so they could launch a government-supported startup with the stolen computer chip designs. Federal prosecutors did not accuse the Chinese government of having a role in the conspiracy.
Zhong and Ye plead guilty in December 2006, becoming the first people convicted under the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, which imposed heavier penalties for people exporting technology secrets to other nations.
Both Zhong and Ye faced between three and five years, but could have faced up to 30 years in federal prison. Prosecutors granted leniency because the defendants cooperated with federal investigators, but refused to give them home detention, as requested by the defendants' lawyers.
Zhong faces deportation after his prison sentence, and it's possible he'll face punishment from the Chinese government for cooperating with prosecutors in the U.S.
There has been a growing concern of American engineers exporting trade secrets to foreign companies in exchange for payment. To help battle against this kind of theft, the U.S. government has created additional anti-espionage laws that increase punishment and government increased enforcement.