Court Battles

Prosecutors drop charges against visiting Chinese scientist at University of Virginia

Judges use a small wooden mallet to signal for attention or order.

Federal prosecutors this week dropped charges against a visiting Chinese scientist at the University of Virginia who had been accused of stealing trade secrets from his professor.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Charlottesville, Va., submitted a motion on Sunday asking the court to dismiss the case against Hu Haizhou after concluding he was authorized to access some of the information that he was accused of stealing, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. 

Hu was arrested last month while researching underwater robotics and charged with stealing proprietary software code that his adviser Haibo Dong, who heads a program funded by the Office of Naval Research, worked on for 20 years.

A federal prosecutor said at a hearing last week in Chicago, where Hu was arrested, that further investigation determined “some portion” of the material allegedly found on his computer was “in a shared space that Mr. Hu had authorized access” to, according to a transcript obtained by the Journal. 

Because of this revelation, the prosecutors would seek to dismiss all charges, which the court accepted on Monday. 

A University of Virginia spokesperson told the Journal in a statement that the university kept looking into “the circumstances surrounding the former research scholar’s unauthorized possession of University files while attempting to leave the country.” He said Hu “did not have permission to access or take the files and was repeatedly denied permission to access them.”

But the spokesperson added that one of the systems Hu had access to involved “permission settings that were not sufficient to establish a violation of law,” prompting the university to examine its data access and permission settings. 

Dong, Hu’s adviser, told the Journal he thought Hu stole his code, saying, “It’s not ethical and not appropriate but whether it reaches a criminal level, I’m not sure.”

Hu’s attorney James Tunick said his client “absolutely feels betrayed by Professor Dong.”

“Every file that was on Haizhou’s computer he was authorized to possess, as he used his login credentials provided by the University of Virginia,” he said, adding Hu “was not aware of the content/substance of many of the files, since they were part of a larger folder that he was required to access and copy to perform certain research.” 

If the case had moved forward, prosecutors would have had to show evidence that Hu wasn’t entitled to the information and that Dong kept the information secure from unauthorized viewers, the Journal noted.

The FBI investigated several researchers about their summer work, prompting them to arrest at least six scientists, including some on allegations they hid their connection to the Chinese military when applying for visas.

Hu was stopped by Customs and Border Protection in Chicago as he was trying to leave the U.S. for China on Aug. 25 and admitted to authorities he had code on his laptop that his adviser would be upset to learn he had, according to the Journal. He is now in China working for a military-funded lab at Beihang University in Beijing.

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