DETROIT -- A General Motors trade-secrets trial peppered with accounts of FBI aircraft surveillance, incriminating recordings and dumping of shredded documents ended with guilty verdicts for a former GM engineer and her husband.
The case is part of a trend of industrial espionage that has menaced the auto industry -- and major corporations and government agencies throughout the United States -- in recent years.
Ford and Toyota also have dealt with rogue employees who took trade secrets that could benefit foreign competitors.
Federal agents opened 1,212 intellectual property investigations in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2011, a 66 percent increase from 2009, according to the U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator's annual report.
In the latest case, former GM engineer Shanshan Du, who was hired in 2000 by GM's Advanced Technology Vehicles Group in suburban Detroit, copied 16,262 documents covering hybrid vehicles onto a USB drive in early February 2005 -- about five days after being offered a severance agreement.
Often, the greed of trade-secret thieves makes it easy to trap them during investigations, a computer forensics expert says. With tiny thumb drives capable of holding huge amounts of information now commonplace, the thieves aren't settling for stealing only one document, said Lee Neubecker, president of Forensicon, a Chicago computer forensics firm with expertise in trade secrets.
"They aren't taking one customer list. They're taking database models. They're taking historical [computer-aided design] files for how every product was designed," Neubecker said. "Their greed is what I rely on in trying to figure out what happened.
"If someone goes in and takes one thing and they do it long before they resign, that's hard for me to discern and make an opinion about. I see that people steal stuff right before they hand their letter of resignation in."