back to article Engineer found guilty of smuggling military-grade chips from the US to China

The US Department of Justice has convicted Shih Yi-chi, an electrical engineer and former academic, over illegal exports of US-made silicon with potential missile guidance applications to China. Shih could be sentenced to up to 219 years in prison, but plans to appeal the decision. "It was a major miscarriage of justice," his …

  1. ST Silver badge

    Totally NOT spying!

    He did this for the betterment of mankind and for easing trade relations between the US and China. China being a very large manufacturer and exporter of microwave ovens.

    1. PM.

      Re: Totally NOT spying!

      self guided air-to-air microwave ovens ...

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How long before smuggling chips from China into the US is also a crime?

    1. herman Silver badge

      Well, 'smuggling' by definition is a crime. If you want to export/import legally, then you have to follow many, many regulations. Smugglers, don't.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        You mean like avoiding tariffs or company bans? I feel the need of an explanation has made my logic fallible, ofc it's a crime and I see your logic as well.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      How long before smuggling chips from China into the US is also a crime?

      You need to be more specific. Generally speaking, whether an act is a crime or not depends on (at least):

      - who is performing it

      - where it is done

      - when it was done

      - who is doing the judging

      In a hypothetical case of smuggling an controlled item to another country, one can easily be:

      - a dangerous criminal (according to the country trying to control the item - on either end)

      - a national hero (according to the country desperately needing the controlled item)

      - nobody in particular (according to most everybody else)

      All three labels can change at any time, including retroactively

    3. Anne-Lise Pasch

      Chips? Or 'Freedom Fries'?

      1. Chris G Silver badge

        Chips with weapons grade salt and vinegar.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Freedom Fries as it's Brexit 1776 today.

  3. This post has been deleted by its author

  4. Daedalus Silver badge

    Point of order

    The DOJ prosecuted the guy and obtained a conviction, but the court and the jury did the convicting. Likewise the court will do the sentencing, not the DOJ.

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Re: Point of order

      If you haven't noticed, the prosecutors always take full credit for a conviction. They may thank "law enforcement" for their work, but they take the credit. When they loose, they generally blame law enforcement for failing to provide the proper evidence.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Point of order

        What do they do when they lose?

        Just a curious pedant here.

        /me donning flame proof jacket :)

  5. martinusher Silver badge

    Anyone care to enlighten us all about what 'miltiary grade' chips are?

    It all sounds convincing but in reality 'military grade' parts are typically parts that are capable of operating in a wider temperature range than commercial or consumer parts. They may also be in a different type of package -- ceramic rather than plastic, for example. Other than that military parts tend to be older technology -- state of the art stuff isn't robust enough for war fighting -- and otherwise characterized by a complete lack of interest in how much the parts cost.

    The ITAR regulations and the disclaimer you have to check to affirm that you're not exporting parts or information or using it for military purposes is a common hurdle when you want to download information from a manufacturer's website. I frequently come across it when getting information from Texas Instruments. Its a bit like those Terms and Conditions that are thrown at you that few, if any, of us actually read -- they only become important when things go wrong. In normal times you wouldn't think twice about this, after all what could go wrong? But we don't live in normal times, and checking that box could put you in legal jeopardy with the Feds (especially if you're Chinese these days...).

    For those of us who don't work with this kind of sensitive technology the parts I'm looking at are used for motor control. This kind of technology is multipurpose, it could be used for military vehicle control but its also more likely to end up in mass produced products like washing machines. It could be hyped up by a Federal prosecutor, its their job, but the reality is that really sensitive technology never turns up on manufacturer's websites (I met an infrared image sensor years ago that produced a high resolution image using starlight and could see through fog and clouds -- in contrast FLIR is like using a Baird televisor. I've never seen anything remotely like this offered for sale.)

    1. Malcolm Weir Silver badge

      Re: Anyone care to enlighten us all about what 'miltiary grade' chips are?

      Don't confuse ITAR with EAR. (Export Administration Regulations). ITAR only covers things that are explicitly military (although that can include things that have non-military applications, such as space technology), while EAR covers commercial stuff that could have military applications! For example, Seagate disk drives are subject to the EARs, and have an Export Control Classification Number (ECCN) that imposes some not-too-onerous conditions.

      The comments about "military grade" apply to some types of products (power supplies, for example: if the thing has a "nuclear event detect" input it may be military grade!), but not others. These days, "Automotive Grade" is often a more rugged device.

      1. Alien8n

        Re: Anyone care to enlighten us all about what 'miltiary grade' chips are?

        2 points...

        1) QS9000 for automotive use has a specification requiring testing for the equivalent lifespan of 25 years, so you may be onto something there. That said some chips can still be used that are still in what's termed qualification phase, both Renault and Ford were using qualification chips around 2000. Ford however decided to cut corners and remove a resistor from the module design resulting in lots of failures. It took a while before it was pointed out that a) the issue wasn't with our chips, it was with their module design, and b) as it was still in qualification the correct response should have been "use at your own discretion" and not "certainly we'll throw all our resources at researching why you can't design a working module".

        2) MMICs are almost entirely military in use due to their nature, however they are also pretty much ubiquitous and made by so many companies worldwide that banning their export is completely meaningless except as a token flag waving gesture. When a previous company bought Marconi the engineers there showed them the patents for their MMICs. When asked what they did they got the response "they make profit". This is also one of the reasons they have very little commercial use, why sell something for a few dollars to a manufacturer of microwave ovens when you can sell them to the government for hundreds of dollars.

    2. ST Silver badge

      Re: Anyone care to enlighten us all about what 'miltiary grade' chips are?

      ITAR Website.

      When in doubt, ask them.

      Also: I'm quite certain that, unlike washing machine motors, wide-band, high-power chips known as monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs) are on the US do not export list.

      1. Electronics'R'Us
        Black Helicopters

        Re: Anyone care to enlighten us all about what 'miltiary grade' chips are?

        I don't think there is a US do not export list.

        What there is are the USML (anything on this list is covered by ITAR) and the EAR, which is way more hazy; in fact many have said that the EAR is becoming the new ITAR.

        Unless an item is EAR 99 (no restrictions except to people or companies on the entity list) then a list of countries to which an item may not be exported to will apply; that list varies by technology.

        To understand just how crazy some of these regulations can be, I can give a specific example that happened to me a few years ago.

        Numerous companies make DC / DC supply bricks and modules and these are usually EAR99 or otherwise do not have particularly onerous restrictions. I was told however, that if I needed a different output voltage (which would involve changing 3 passive parts at most) it would then be classified under ITAR.

        In this particular case, it was if the output was changed to about 6V (which is apparently very popular within missiles). The idiocy here is that I might buy such an item for convenience (cheaper to buy the dozen required than design, build and qualify a dozen for avionics) it is not a complete bar to someone designing such an item with things that are not particularly controlled.

        All microprocessors that implement most forms of encryption are covered by EAR (which is amusing as Dutch researchers invented AES although the prize for being the winner was provided by DARPA).

        The bottom line though is that virtually everything needs an export license from the USA to be exported (the UK is not quite there but it is not that far off either).

        Military grade can refer to either extended temperature range (-55C to +125C) or sometimes to radhard devices (which are generally on the USML) and they can cost a lot more than either the automotive or industrial grade parts.

        Violations of export controls in most countries carries rather heavy penalties. ITT was selling night vision kit to (I think) Iran a few years ago and had to pay a $100M fine ($50M of that was to be used for research to get better NVGs).

    3. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      Re: Anyone care to enlighten us all about what 'miltiary grade' chips are?

      What the other commenters have failed to mention about "military grade" is that often they are much more more concerned about rf emissions. (Think TEMPEST.)

      Military grade: package hardened against extremes of temperature, acceleration, strain, and TEMPEST. There is also a good chance that any back door access lines are terminated well inside the package. Maybe not all at once, but likely.

      In practice, these are not generally available with cutting edge technologies.

  6. StargateSg7 Bronze badge

    This MMIC (Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuit) mil-spec argument is TOTAL BS !!!

    .... I've got an OPEN SOURCE ASIC DESIGN with full COMBINED CPU/GPU/DSP/ADAC/DAC functionality that can do usually 60/80/100 GHz up to 2 THz using super-cooled GaN and GaAs substrates and literally ANY IDIOT can etch it on a 280 to 400 nanometre process (GaAs and GaN need much wider traces than general Si CMOS). you could even PRINT my super MMIC designs on a 2400, 4800 dpi or 9600 dpi photolithographic process at micron sizes which you can buy ANYWHERE in the world!

    Everyone wants Intel Core-i7 chip sizes but if you GET OVER YOUR WHINING, you can just print it all at a larger process size and build your own designs using commonly available print and etching technology!

    I think it's time to put my Tape-Out MMIC designs onto GitHub or some OpenSource sites!!! That will be a nice middle finger to major governments when ANY idiot can print a 60 GHZ to 2 THz monolithic general purpose CPU circuit using older, if larger, chip-making processes!


  7. Kernel

    Say again?

    "The DoJ claimed Shin got access to the chipmaker's systems after Mai pretended to be a domestic customer, seeking to obtain custom MMICs for use within the US."

    So, are the chips in question of significant military significance, or are they readily available to anyone who says they live in the US? - I can almost detect a slight whiff of 'we didn't do proper due diligence before we made this sale - how can we cover it up".

  8. JJKing

    What was his problem?

    Maybe he just has a chip on his shoulder.

    Mine's the one with the packet of Smiths (or Lays) in the pocket.

  9. AndyFl

    Everything is a risk when dealing with US products

    It is beginning to become a risk to buy any semiconductor or tech product from the USA for delivery elsewhere. There are so many little gotchas it is very hard to be sure you are not violating some export or "security" regulation and that you won't end up being a trade bargaining chip whilst getting crap under the guise of "security". This is even more true if you are in places like the Middle East.

    The rules and companies on the banned list seem vary from one day to the next based on what a certain person sees on "Fox and friends" or whatever the current trashy programme of choice is. If your company relies on the USA for critical components you are at risk. It has got to the point where I have started looking at suppliers in the following order: Local (rarely a practical option), EU,Turkey, China and then reluctantly USA. It doesn't help that USA products tend to be more expensive than elsewhere.

    If things get much worse the USA won't need to worry about illegal exports as nobody will be buying anyway and they can simply ban all shipments everywhere.


  10. 2+2=5 Silver badge

    up to 219 years

    I'm so totally not going to be a spy if it means 219 years in prison. Anything up to 150 is fine though.

    1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

      Re: up to 219 years

      Pah! With good behaviour he could be out in 199 years.

  11. W.S.Gosset Silver badge


    [red pen] "pleaded"

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If there's a "Do Not Export" list..

    .. I would welcome it of they put the Trump family on it.

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