The Scientist and the Spy by Mara Hvistendahl

The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial EspionageThe Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage by Mara Hvistendahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a retired FBI agent who worked both foreign counterintelligence against China and Economic Espionage cases, I found this book fascinating. I did not know of this particular case before reading the book, and have no preconceived notions about the case itself. The prose flows smoothly here with the author’s engaging style. Her research is good but I got the impression there was a slight pro-China or at least pro-Chinese individuals leaning in her writing, which is only natural for someone who spent years there and no doubt has many friendships and deep roots there.

Investigating and prosecuting economic espionage cases is a very complex business and much of the investigator’s job cannot be brought out or appreciated in a book of this nature. Still, I think the author does a good job of discussing how victim companies are in a bind when the FBI or any law enforcement becomes involved and almost adversarial to the government in such cases. I wish she had spent a little more time on that. The criminal prosecution complicates their business, often threatening to reveal their trade secrets in court. If civil litigation is in process, which it usually is, the defense is handed the argument that the victim company is using the government as their agent or their investigator. The argument goes that the government shouldn’t put its finger on the scales of what is essentially a business dispute. My view is that a theft is a theft whether the victim is Molly’s Hair Salon or Megacorp and law enforcement should investigate crimes and prosecute thieves. A crime victim should be allowed to cooperate with law enforcement without being punished for it.

One glaring omission for those of us in the field is the issue of adequate protection. In order to have a crime under the EEA of 1996, whether trade secret theft or economic espionage, it is necessary to prove that the trade secret was in fact a secret, i.e. that it was sufficiently well-protected. The defense will always claim that it wasn’t really a secret, or not well-protected enough to be considered secret. In effect the argument becomes, “if my client was able to steal it, then it must not be a trade secret and therefore not a crime.” The crime, in effect, doesn’t ever exist. I consider the argument to be specious. The author confuses this issue with the technological value of the thing stolen. A trade secret doesn’t have to be technology at all. In fact, the most valuable trade secret in most companies is a Rolodex with names of customers or suppliers. It can be internal pay records and personnel performance reviews. It seems to me that the issue of protections afforded (or not) to the corn seed lines was, or should have been, a major issue in this case, yet it was little discussed.

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