Former DuPont researcher hit with federal data theft charges

Meng accused of wrongfully accessing a company computer

A former research scientist at DuPont USA who is already facing civil charges for allegedly attempting to steal corporate secrets from the company, has been hit with a federal criminal complaint on the same charges.

Prosecutors charged Hong Meng with exceeding his authority to access a protected computer when he downloaded certain documents from his DuPont-issued laptop computer to an external thumb drive and then onto his home computer.

Meng, a Chinese national with permanent resident status in the U.S., was arrested Oct. 2 and appeared before Magistrate Judge Mary Pat Thynge. He was released on the condition that he establishes a permanent address in Delaware by Oct. 16, from where he can be electronically monitored.

DuPont in September filed a lawsuit in Delaware Chancery Court accusing Meng of stealing data on a new, thin-computer display technology called "organic light emitting diode" or OLED. DuPont claimed that Meng planned to use the stolen information to commercialize products using OLED technology with Peking University in Beijing, which is developing similar technology.

The federal complaint sheds some light on what led to the charges against Meng, who joined DuPont in 2002 and worked at the company's Central Research and Development facility in Wilmington, Del.

During the course of his work at DuPont, Meng had extensive access to cutting edge OLED research information which was considered by DuPont to be trade secret information. The OLED research data was stored by DuPont in three separate Lotus Notes databases and could only be accessed by a limited number of employees using two-factor authentication.

In June, Meng informed DuPont officials that he was resigning from the company and to join DuPont in China. During a meeting with his supervisor, Meng asked for permission to transfer files from his company laptop to systems in DuPont China. Though he was denied permission to do so, Meng in August allegedly went ahead and copied nearly 600 files from his company-issued computer onto an external storage device.

Nearly 550 of those files were later found on his home computer, which Dupont investigators inspected with Meng's permission. A forensic analysis of the home computer also showed that more than 175 of the DuPont files had been opened using the Internet Explorer browser, suggesting that Meng had accessed or sent these documents using a personal e-mail account, according to court documents.

The majority of the incriminating documents allegedly found on Meng's computers originated from DuPont's protected Notes databases and related to DuPont's OLED research priorities and evaluation of the commercial viability of the technology. Meng is also alleged to have downloaded a Microsoft Word document with information on a specific procedure invented by DuPont to improve stability and performance of organic electronic materials, court documents said. According to court papers, DuPont has spent millions of dollars and put in more than 17 years of research into developing OLED technology.

DuPont investigators also found evidence on Meng's computers that he had accepted a position at the department of advance materials and nanotechnology at Peking University's College of Engineering. Meng had taken the job without informing DuPont as he was required to. Papers filed in connection with the civil complaint against Meng described Peking University as a rival in the area of OLED research.

Meng himself claimed that he considered the information he had downloaded to be "reference materials" for his job at DuPont in China. He has also maintained that the documents never left his control, the complaint noted.

This is the second time in recent years that DuPont has been involved in an incident involving an alleged compromise of its trade secrets. In February 2007, Gary Min, a former research scientist at DuPont, admitted to stealing proprietary information valued at $400 million from the company. Min is serving an 18-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to the theft.

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Jaikumar Vijayan

Computerworld (US)
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