Chinese Spy in Florida Sent Drone Parts to China for Military

Crew aboard the Australian Defense Vessel Ocean Shield move a U.S. Navy Bluefin-21 autonomous underwater vehicle into position for deployment in the southern Indian Ocean on April 14, 2014. Amin Yu, an Orlando, Florida, resident, was charged in an 18-count indictment for conspiracy to illegally export systems, components and documents to China on April 21, related to the development of underwater drone technology. Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Blair/U.S. Navy/Reuters

A Chinese woman living in Florida was a spy who smuggled underwater drone parts from U.S. companies to a state-owned university in China that does military research—the latest example of economic espionage, which the FBI says has increased by over 50 percent—according to federal prosecutors on Thursday.

Amin Yu, 53, worked as a researcher at Harbin Engineering University studying "underwater remotely operated vehicles" until she came to the U.S. in 1998, according to her 18-count indictment.

Yu used two companies she started to buy systems and components for underwater vehicles under the direction of a Harbin professor between 2002 and 2014. She then sent the parts to China, where the professor and other co-conspirators used them to develop drones for the Navy of the People's Liberation Army and other state entities, the indictment states.

Yu, a Chinese citizen living in Orlando as a permanent resident and working part-time at a university there, allegedly bought parts like cables and connectors, video guidance computers and underwater acoustic locater devices. She purchased the parts from companies in the U.S., Canada and Europe, and sent them to China using the United States Postal Service and UPS, while filing bogus export forms that didn't mention the parts were headed for Harbin Engineering University, according to the indictment.

Yu was charged with conspiracy, acting in the U.S. as the illegal agent of a foreign government, money laundering and filing false export information, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The case is being prosecuted by attorneys from the DOJ's national security division.

Another Chinese citizen, Fuyi Sun, was arrested last week in New York City after he allegedly traveled from China and paid undercover federal agents tens of thousands of dollars for carbon fiber he said was headed to the Chinese military.

"The carbon fiber—which has many aerospace and defense applications—is strictly controlled, and Sun expressed a willingness to pay a premium to skirt U.S. export laws," John Carlin, the assistant U.S. attorney for national security, said when the arrest was announced.

Last year, the FBI's head of counterintelligence said there was a 53 percent increase in economic espionage cases in the U.S. over the past year and cited a 2013 report that said the theft of American intellectual property cost the country "hundreds of billions" of dollars every year.

"We have people literally walking into warehouses and factories attempting to steal secrets," FBI counterintelligence chief Randall Coleman said last year. "It's actually shocking the lengths they will go to try and steal information."

Foreign competitors use three main methods to create spy networks that target economic intelligence, the FBI said. The first strategy targets current and former foreign nationals who work for U.S. companies and research institutions, while the second involves aggressive tactics like bribery, theft, dumpster-diving, computer hacking and wiretapping. The third method—and this is the one Yu allegedly practiced—is to establish seemingly innocent business relationships with U.S. companies to gather economic intelligence and proprietary information.