April 16, 2021

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When you have a really good idea, copycats may try to steal it for themselves —  and that’s what investigators assumed was happening when an unfamiliar man was spotted in a cornfield in Iowa in 2011. They knew that companies like Monsanto were using those fields to grow new types of corn seeds, and that the company was notoriously tight-lipped about the trade secrets behind its crops; farmers didn’t even necessarily know what was being grown on their land. That secretiveness was not without good reason, though. The man in the cornfield, Robert Mo, was indeed trying to smuggle corn seed to China, as a form of intellectual property theft.

Mara Hvistendahl, investigative reporter for The Intercept, and author of The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage unpacks the story and explores the wide world of international idea-pilfering: from corn seeds to look-alike cars. According to Hvistendahl, in this war of confidential information, countries like China are notorious for creating knockoffs and bootlegs, while countries like the United States are deeply invested in keeping the secrets behind the originals just that  —  secret.

Three Takeaways:

  • Intellectual property (or IP) theft isn’t new, but the modern iteration of it is playing out on a whole new scale, according to Hvistendahl. Trade secrets crossing borders without permission can be traced back centuries, to things like silk processing or tea manufacturing. Nowadays, IP can involve everything from military equipment to the whitener used in the cream in Oreo cookies, and countries are invested in keeping the secrets behind their trademark products to themselves.
  • IP theft is not just an international trade. Companies within the same field, such as Monsanto and DuPont, tie each other up frequently with litigation about allegedly stolen ideas. When it is an international company being accused, though, the government often foots the bill for the legal dispute, giving companies plenty of incentive to come down hard on their ideas being smuggled across borders. In the case of Robert Mo, Hvistendahl says as far as she knows, he is currently waiting in an ICE detention center to be deported back to China.
  • The United States is not just interested in protecting American companies’ IP on principle. According to Hvistendahl, there’s a belief that attacks on America’s trade secrets are practically attacks on America itself. However, protecting modern IP is massively difficult when, for instance, an entire car’s blueprint can fit on a thumbdrive. 

More Reading:

  • Hvistendahl says that researchers working with China - or who are originally from China - face a great deal of scrutiny from the U.S. Read this article from the daughter of Xiaoxing Xi, a Chinese researcher wrongly accused in 2015 of commiting IP theft, to hear how things can go wrong when accusations of espionage are based more on suspicion than fact.
  • The Brits may love their tea, but tea leaves did not originate in Britain. Check out this Smithsonian article about the heist that brought tea to the U.K., and uncovered a fraud in the process.
  • Some trade secrets, like secret recipes, are secret for obvious reasons. Others, like the secrets behind glitter manufacturing, may take you by surprise.

China, Business, Industrial Espionage, Monsanto, Espionage, Mara Hvistendahl

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