Former Phillips 66 employee charged with trade secret theft

Research engineer reportedly caught by energy firm following a review of his computer activity

Phillips 66 spokesman Dennis Nuff confirmed Monday that the company is cooperating with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in an case involving a former Bartlesville employee.

A Chinese national, Hongjin Tan, who is a legal permanent resident of the United States, was charged last week in Tulsa federal court on a theft of trade secrets complaint, according to federal court documents. Tan is being detained, and preliminary and detention hearing are scheduled Wednesday.

Tan, of Bartlesville, made his initial court appearance on Thursday.

A LinkedIn page for Hongjin Tan, whose education matches the education supplied in the affidavit, states he was a staff scientist at the Phillips 66 Research Center in Bartlesville. He was hired in April 2017 as research engineer in the company’s battery development group, according to the affidavit.

Phillips 66 is not specifically named in the court documents. It is referred to as “Company A — a large international independent energy and petroleum corporation whose business focuses on exploration and development of petrochemical products and by-products and exploration and development of oil and natural gas.”

The document also states the company protects its proprietary technology and processes through a multi-layered strategy involving both physical security as well as password protected entrance into various computer systems.

Tan gave his two-week notice to supervisors on Dec. 12, saying he was returning to China to be with his family. He told his supervisor he didn’t have a job offer but was talking with battery companies in China.

Tan’s resignation sparked a review of Tan’s computer activity. The review confirmed Tan had accessed hundreds of files, including research reports on how to make “Product A,” and the company’s plans to market the product in China and in cellphone and lithium-based battery systems.

The review also revealed Tan had downloaded restricted files to a thumb drive. Later that day, Tan notified the company he had another flash drive that contained company information. He returned it to the company. The company advised Tan that he would not be allowed to finish his two weeks of notice and was asked to leave the company immediately, according to the court affidavit.

A company representative contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Dec. 13 to report a theft of trade secrets. An investigation was launched.

During the investigation, the FBI learned:

• Tan had told a co-worker he was leaving Oklahoma on Dec. 27 to return to China. He also told the co-worker that he had traveled to China in September to be interviewed by a Chinese company. He had been in constant contact with the company since he graduated from the California Institute of Technology.

• On Dec. 19, Tan’s laptop issued by the company was examined and a letter written in Chinese was discovered. The letter was submitted to an FBI linguist who determined the letter was an offer of employment with a company in Xiamen, China. The letter was dated Oct. 15, 2018, and signed Oct. 17.

The letter also stated the company would pay Tan approximately $50,000, for “talent” that the had brought to the company. The letter said Tan’s hiring date would be Jan. 1, 2019.

The letter also was stamped with the logo of the company. It also noted that his salary with the company would be $116,000.

A search warrant was issued for Tan’s residence, and a USB thumb drive was located in Tan’s house that contained documents belonging to his former employer.

Read more at SecurityInfoWatch.

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