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Was Shane Todd murdered over high-tech secrets?

Shane Todd, a US citizen working in Singapore, believed he had access to restricted tech. His death in 2012 was by suicide, say local authorities. But his family, suspecting murder, wants the FBI to take part in the investigation.

By Staff writer / April 30, 2013

Outside the Institute of Microelectronics building in Singapore, where Shane Todd worked before his death.

Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

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According to Singapore authorities' official version of events, Shane Todd committed suicide one week before he was to return home to the United States. But his mother, Mary, doesn't believe that for a second. To her, he died an American hero, paying with his life for his refusal to allow China access to a restricted technology its military keenly wants.

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Dr. Todd's death has already become an international incident, with the Todd family's cause taken up by three members of Congress and US Secretary of State John Kerry in private meetings with Singapore officials. Though Singapore will open a public investigation on May 13, the Todds want independent oversight and Federal Bureau of Investigation involvement.

But Todd's story is also the story of the technology his family says he died to protect, and it points to a shadowy world in which foreign actors go to great lengths to get their hands on sensitive US technology. While Mary Todd's accusations are far from proved, the gallium nitride (GaN) recipe that was in her son's mind and on his laptop computer could bring billions of dollars to Chinese corporations as well as radically improve China's military radar.

Those facts, and Todd's own premonitions that he had perhaps gotten in over his head, have turned his death into the latest example of the lingering American distrust over the rise of China and its military might.

"I saw some of the details of [Todd's] work," says Steven Huettner, a military radar expert who spent 30 years at defense industry giant Raytheon. "Until I saw them, I don't think anybody really understood the significance of what he was working on."

Todd himself was loath to talk about what he was working on in the months before his death. "Mom, I'm being asked to compromise US security, but I will not do it," Ms. Todd, speaking to the Monitor in a phone interview, recounts her son telling her via Skype.

It was not until after June 24, 2012, when their son was found hanged in his apartment, an apparent suicide, that the Todds got a stunning clue. They had gone to Singapore after his death to try to piece together what had happened – soon discovering stark inconsistencies between the scene at Shane's apartment and accounts by Singapore police. As they were leaving, they found the backup hard drive for one of the laptops Singapore police had taken.

Several files included technical requirements for a joint research project between the government-backed research lab Todd worked for in Singapore, the Institute of Microelectronics (IME), and Huawei Technologies, a China-based electronics giant. The project was aimed at making GaN power amplifier chips.

On one hand, it would hardly be surprising for Huawei to be pursuing such technology. Power-distribution systems, industrial systems, electric vehicles, and cell towers are all key GaN industries, according to a recent study by Markets and Markets, a market research firm in Dallas. As a result, the GaN power amplifier market is surging at a growth rate of 80 percent per year and is expected to exceed $1.7 billion in sales a decade from now, the report says.

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