A Taiwanese citizen living in California took chip design information from his company and e-mailed it to a potential rival in Taiwan, U.S. authorities charged Monday.
The U.S. Attorney for Northern California alleged that Shin-Guo Tsai, 35, took data sheets from Volterra Semiconductor and sent them over the Internet to a potential competitor on Dec. 25, 2004.
FBI agents arrested Tsai, who has permanent resident status in the United States, on Sunday night on charges of transporting stolen property abroad, a crime that could bring a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California.
Tsai is in custody until a hearing later this week, U.S. Attorney spokesman Luke Macaulay said in a statement.
Tsai worked for Volterra from July 2002 until Feb. 15, 2005, when he announced he was returning to Taiwan to marry. Volterra completed an initial public offering last year.
The complaint, filed in U.S. federal court in San Jose, Calif., also alleged that Tsai had been in contact with the chairman of CMSC, a Taiwanese start-up company that it said was involved in the same business as Volterra.
It added that Tsai admitted to FBI agents last week that he had sent proprietary information to CMSC.
The chairman of CMSC did not respond to an e-mail on Monday seeking response.
The criminal complaint quoted David Lidsky, Volterra's vice president of design engineering, as saying the transmitted information about the firm's 1100-series products "related to the design of high-performance analog and mixed-signal power management semiconductors."
Experts say theft and espionage is a headache for many Silicon Valley technology firms, although many do not turn to authorities when they discover it.
"This is becoming more and more of a problem," said La Rae Quy, a former counterintelligence officer who now serves as the FBI spokeswoman. "We're working with companies to alleviate their concerns about coming forward."
"This is the reaction with many companies: It is cheaper to lose the technology than it is to face negative media attention or adverse stock reaction."
However, she said, Fremont, Calif.-based Volterra, which designs low-voltage power supply chips, did come forward in this case.