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.

Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images
Outside the Institute of Microelectronics building in Singapore, where Shane Todd worked before his death.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Courtesy of the Todd family
Shane Todd with his mother, Mary Todd.

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.

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.

"It's widely recognized as a key technology for next-generation wireless base stations," said Jannie Luong, a spokeswoman for Huawei Technologies in an e-mail. "The development of GaN technology is commonplace across the entire telecommunications industry."

What would GaN do for China?

But to outside experts, the 1,000 project files on Todd's hard drive raise many questions. Perhaps most alarming is that the project appeared to have clear military uses, say those who have seen the files.

"There's a specification in there for high-efficiency and high-power amplifiers that covers a frequency band known to be radar," says Mr. Huettner. "It just smelled like defense work."

Just as Huawei would love to have the technology for its cell towers, the Chinese military would love to have it for its radar. If, hypothetically, missiles could be detected 400 miles away by conventional radar, radar equipped with GaN chips could detect missiles perhaps 600 to 800 miles away, experts say. That would increase critical reaction time. Similar upgrades could occur in missile-seeking (homing) capabilities and other crucial military applications.

"If the Chinese get a chip like this it would give them an order of magnitude increase in the capability of their radar systems," says Bernard "Bud" Cole, a retired US Navy captain and China military expert at the National War College. "It would increase Chinese ability to detect incoming aircraft and missiles and enhance their capabilities at sea with shipborne radar."

While the Chinese military has in recent years ramped up its ambitions, it still is playing catch-up, and the GaN chips would represent a significant prize.

"It's obvious that the Chinese are trying to acquire and/or upgrade such high-tech items as radar systems, flight control systems, air traffic control systems," and drones, says Richard Bitzinger, an expert on the Chinese military at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, in an e-mail. "The Chinese have a very obvious interest in trying to upgrade their military (which is still pretty backwards, overall) with systems like modern fighters, surface ships, and submarines. This means getting things like better radars, fire control and communications systems."

Huawei spokeswoman Ms. Luong said the company "does not do military equipment or technology nor do we discuss it with partners."

But others suggest that information-technology businesses in China are intertwined with the military. The industry "can be considered a hybrid defense industry, able to operate with success in commercial markets while meeting the demands of its military customers," according to a 2012 report by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Last fall, a report by the House Select Committee on Intelligence declared Huawei to be a threat to US national security.

Experts also note that Huawei's research and development of new technologies have historically lagged. So Huawei has established many research partnerships, including several in the US that are focused on GaN technology. So it would be understandable for Huawei to consider a partnership with IME.

"Huawei has been behind the eight ball on R&D in recent years – it's been hard for them," says a Washington foreign-trade expert who requested anonymity so as not to burn bridges with the company. "They've really never been cutting edge, always following behind. Their equipment is good, no doubt. But it's just not there when it comes to R&D. So they have to depend on foreign partnerships and hope that they can get it right."

Todd's trip to New Jersey

Certainly, Todd was disconcerted by the presence at IME of Chinese businessmen with an eye on his project – men later identified as being with Huawei, Todd's parents say.

In January 2012, immediately after he returned to Singapore from a trip to New Jersey, Todd told his parents he was being quizzed at work not just by his own IME scientific team, but separately and intensely by the Chinese businessmen.

The timing was significant. It was on that trip to New Jersey, Todd's parents say, that he was given access to key recipes for GaN power amplifier wafers while training with Veeco, a Plainview, N.Y., company that was exporting a specialized GaN-wafer-making reactor to IME. That conclusion, they say, was based on files found on Shane's hard drive and a conversation he had with a family member.

IME had already been doing research on how to make GaN power amplifier wafers in ways that could slash production costs. Todd himself is named as an author on a scientific paper published posthumously in a Japanese scientific journal in October that announced IME researchers "for the first time" had made GaN power amplifier wafers atop an eight-inch silicon wafer. (The Pentagon relies on more potent but far costlier GaN technology based on silicon-carbonite wafers.)

But the advances hinted at in the paper were dependent on one vital element – the advanced formula, or recipe, that Todd's parents say he got in New Jersey. Among the files on Todd's backup drive was one PowerPoint presentation titled "Layer structure and summary of Veeco grown HEMT wafer" containing a formula for boosting a GaN chip, according to documents provided to the Monitor.

"What Shane was working on was essentially a far cheaper version of the GaN chip than is now used by the US military," Huettner says.

World of tech transfer

To prevent such technology from falling into the hands of rivals or potential enemies, US export law requires both the specialized reactors and the recipes to have a license granted by the US Department of Commerce's Bureau of Industry and Security. The license must describe the project, recipient, and nation.

Exporting the reactor, experts say, was not a red flag. It could be used for harmless civilian projects like producing light-emitting diodes. The recipe was the key, and formulas for making cutting-edge GaN power amplifier wafers that could be used militarily would not be granted a license, federal officials told the Monitor.

Leaking such information could mean a federal prison sentence, and that is precisely what Todd felt he was being pressured to do, his parents say.

"He told us he felt so naive and worried that he might already have made a mistake and revealed more than he should have," Ms. Todd says. "But he was worried because of the pressure he was under at work to give away these secrets. And he said his life was being threatened."

"It made him very uncomfortable," adds Rick Todd, Shane's father and a former US Navy pilot. "He was upset because he was being pumped for information about this technology by people he didn't really know – and they would ask him questions and then speak to each other in Mandarin about his responses."

By late February 2012, Todd told his parents that he was quitting IME and giving 60 days' notice. But he agreed to remain a month longer because he was the only person qualified on the specialized GaN-wafer-making reactors made by Veeco.

By June 24, one week before he was to leave Singapore for good, Todd was dead. "Nobody we have spoken to thought he was suicidal," Ms. Todd says.

Both IME and Huawei insist there never was a joint research effort on GaN technology – although both acknowledge there were preliminary discussions about one.

"IME approached Huawei on one occasion to cooperate with them in the GaN field, but we decided not to accept, and consequently do not have any cooperation with IME related to GaN," said Huawei's Luong.

Todd's files tell a different story, says Colin Humphreys, director of research at Cambridge University's Centre for Gallium Nitride, a world leader in GaN technology.

"From looking at those documents that IME had been discussing with Huawei, it was clearly a project aimed at making a high-power device," he says. "It could be for a cellphone base station, but it could also just as easily be for military radar."

IME officials deny that the company would illegally import US export-controlled technology or sell it to China. Nor would it share restricted GaN power amplifier recipes. Such allegations, if proved, would be devastating to IME, which among its many projects conducts restricted electronics research for the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

"IME has internal processes to ensure that it complies fully with such terms and process audits may be conducted to ensure this," reads an IME statement.

Veeco officials also deny the company made any missteps. While it won't categorically rule out supplying a "basic recipe" for GaN chips, the company insists it does not provide advanced chip recipes along with its machines.

"Veeco does not provide 'best known' recipes or technology to our customers," says Debra Wasser, a company spokeswoman, in a statement. The company complies with all federal export laws, including "employing procedures to guard against diversion" of recipes and other restricted information.

But with so much at stake, US officials argue that an independent inquiry – with the FBI having full access to Todd's two laptop computers now in Singapore police custody – is vital.

After meeting with Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana, Singapore's visiting foreign minister, K. Shanmugam, vowed a full investigation and welcomed involvement by the Todds.

"There will be a public inquiry where all the relevant evidence will be presented," Mr. Shanmugam said, noting that the Todd family will be allowed to appoint their own lawyers and take part in the investigation.

Senator Baucus and Sen. Jon Tester (D), also of Montana, in March dialed up the pressure further by introducing legislation to halt all US research funding for IME unless the FBI is granted "full oversight" over a new investigation.

The Todds, who live in Montana, are hopeful. The family's own forensic analysis of their son's hard drive showed attempts to delete some files relating to the Huawei-IME partnership about three days after Shane's body was found, his parents say.

"Some of the recipes in Shane's possession weren't really supposed to be passed along with the sale of that machine," Rick Todd says. "So that's my guess, that's why they murdered him. I think it's pretty simple, really. Shane had the recipe – and he could have identified the people who were pressing him for it."

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