SEATTLE • China's Huawei Technologies couldn't take no for an answer when US wireless provider T-Mobile refused to license or sell it a robot used for testing mobile phones, so the technology giant stole it, according to a federal indictment unsealed in a Seattle court last week.
Huawei has contended that its employees were acting on their own to learn more about the robot that T-Mobile used to test smartphones, nicknamed Tappy, because it could rapidly tap a phone screen. But the indictment cites multiple e-mails exchanged between Huawei engineers urging those with access to Tappy to take increasingly precise measurements.
Eventually, the indictment says, a Huawei engineer was sneaked into the Tappy laboratory by other Huawei employees who had access. He was caught and thrown out but returned, the indictment said.
Later, after all but one Huawei employee had their access to the robot revoked, the employee took a Tappy robotic arm home for closer study, according to the indictment.
A Huawei investigation into the issue, which concluded there was minimal coordination among the engineers, contained false statements, the indictment added.
The indictment also cites a Huawei programme started in 2013 to reward employees for stealing confidential information from competitors. They were directed to post such information to an internal Huawei website, or in special cases to an encrypted e-mail address, the indictment said. Bonuses were apportioned to those who stole the most valuable information, it said.
The case has been assigned to US District Judge Ricardo Martinez.
If found guilty, Huawei faces a fine of up to US$5 million (S$6.7 million), or three times the value of the stolen trade secret, whichever is greater.
T-Mobile had already taken Huawei to court over the incident. It settled in 2017 for US$4.8 million after trying to claim US$500 million in damages, with a jury ruling that Huawei misappropriated trade secrets, but had not done so wilfully or with malice. However, that was a civil case, whereas the latest indictment is a criminal one.
Huawei and Chinese technology companies more broadly have been the target of a broad US crackdown, but the charges announced last Monday mark a dramatic escalation of tensions between the world's two largest economies as they are also caught in a trade war.