Charges against a University of Virginia researcher have been dropped after he was accused last month of stealing trade secrets and trying to take them to China.
Haizhou Hu, a Chinese national, was arrested Aug. 28 as he attempted to board a flight from Chicago to China, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice. He was charged with accessing a computer without authorization to obtain protected information, as well as theft of trade secrets, according to the court documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia.
According to the release, Hu had been studying bio-mimics and fluid dynamics at UVa.
A screening conducted by authorities revealed that Hu was alleged to be in possession of bio-inspired research simulation software code that he was not authorized to possess, and which represented the result of years of research and resources in its development by members of the UVa academic community.
According to a report from the BBC, Chinese students have been subject to heightened scrutiny at U.S. airports in an apparent effort to thwart economic espionage.
On Sept. 18, prosecutors filed a motion to dismiss the charges, and on Sept. 25, the motion was granted.
According to UVa spokesman Wes Hester, while cooperating with the investigation, the university determined that one of the computing systems to which the student had access included permission settings that were not sufficient to establish a violation of law.
“Even though the criminal charges have been dismissed, we continue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the former research scholar’s unauthorized possession of university files while attempting to leave the country,” Hester said.
As a follow-up to the incident, UVa is reviewing its data access and permission standards, Hester said.
The circumstances behind the charges were detailed in an FBI affidavit, indicating that Hu was researching bio-mimics and fluid dynamics to be used in underwater robotics, submersible vehicles, aircraft engines and various other marine and aerospace applications. Hu received the research position after reaching out to an unnamed UVa professor from the school’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
According to the court document, Hu previously worked for a laboratory funded by the People’s Liberation Army, which is the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China.
“Hu said that he works for the Chinese Key Laboratory for Fluid Dynamics located at Beihang University,” an affidavit reads. “Hu stated that the Chinese equivalent of the [National Science Foundation] funds the Key Laboratory, and that the Key Laboratory also receives funding from the Chinese Air Force.”
Though Hu was granted a position on the research team, he was not given access to “core source code” files used for “bio-inspired learning, research and modeling,” according to the court documents.
The unnamed professor told investigators that the code was a well-guarded secret that gave UVa a competitive advantage and only the professor and two graduate students had access to the code. The code is stored on a high-performance computer cluster with controlled access, according to court documents.
Hu requested access to the code on several occasions, which the professor denied him.
Hu was later found to be in possession of the code during a stop at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
According to court documents, the professor said he did not know how Hu accessed the code, but theorized it could have happened one of three ways: by using credentials stolen from himself or the two graduate students; by accessing the code when a person with authorized access was logged in but had walked away from the computer; or by hacking into the storage space where the code was stored.
It is unclear whether Hu remains in the United States.