How Huawei Stole T-Mobile Robot Technology : A Detailed Account

Huawei employees, in the US and China, ran a joint effort over a year-long period to steal the T-Mobile robot technology to develop its own smartphone testing robot

Two days back the prosecutors in the US levelled a pair of indictments against Chinese technology firm Huawei. Both the cares are serious in nature – of unauthorisedly entering to a testing lab and stealing US technology, and doing business with Iran defying the US sanctions. The outcome of these state trials may have political, economical and technological ramifications.

In the first indictment the US Department of Justice said Huawei deployed a well orchastrated plan to steal technology about T-Mobile’s robot for handset testing. And in the second case, the state charged the Chinese firm of defying the US sanctions and supplying US technologies to Iran. In the second case even the Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Canada and still under house arrest.

While Huawei refutes all allegation, it is interesting to see the ways the Chinese firm executed the T-Mobile robot theft. As per the charges by the prosecutors, the robot armrest does not look any less than a Hollywood script.

A Chinese engineer enters T-Mobile lab misusing some other employee’s access card, takes photographs of the robot, collect data, and finally carries home an arm of the T-Mobile robot

How The Heist Executed

Scene-1 : The Plot

The US operator T-Mobile had developed a robot to test the efficiency and quality of smartphones it intends to sell to its customers. The robot has a highly intelligent mechanical ‘arm’ that can hold a smartphone, use it and simulate various functions to check if the phone is good enough to be sold. The robot, named Tappy, was placed in a lab and various smartphone makers including Huawei were given access to the lab to use Tappy to test their own smartphones.

This was the official entry of Huawei to T-Mobile lab and to access Tappy. That was in August 2012.

Because Huawei was selling its smartphones through T-Mobile in the US, the Chinese firm had always wanted to get quick clearance for its smartphone testings. And in order to get quick clearance, Huawei wanted to build its own robot, set in the same lines of T-Mobile robot. However, the Chinese firm did not have enough information about how the T-Mobile robot works.

Hence, it wanted to steal Tappy’s technology and replicate the same for its own robot.

Around end of 2012, Huawei started developing its own robot named xDeviceRobot. The company wanted to use this robot to test its phones before sending those to T-Mobile. According to the indictment, Huawei wanted this for two reasons. One, its smartphones were inferior in quality compared to other vendors who supplied to T-Mobile, and these phones were failing the ‘Tappy tests’. Second, the company wanted to use robotic testing to find the flaws in its phones and rectify them before sending to T-Mobile.

Also Read : US Wants to Kill Chinese Business, Says China Over Huawei Indictment

Scene 2 : The Beginning

In May 2012, much before it was allowed to access Tappy, Huawei USA’s director, Technical Acceptance, had asked T-Mobile if it would like to sell or license Tappy robot system to Huawei China. T-Mobile, in an official reply, had clearly declined to do so.

In May 2013, Huawei China asked its US employees who were working at T-Mobile lab to gain access to Tappy and collect as much information as possible.

The indictment says, “In 2012 and continuing through May 2013, Huawei China, with the help of Huawei USA employees, undertook a scheme to steal T-Mobile’s Tappy technology for use in the development of its xDeviceRobot.”

Huawei China had asked its USA employees, through a series of questions, to collect various technical data including component serial number, camera resolution, speed of the sliding arm of the robot etc. The Huawei USA employees asked the same questions to T-Mobile engineers but the latter had cleared refused to disclose any information.

However, Huawei USA employees informed its headquarter in China that they can try to take some photographs of the robot while is use. By November, 2012, some photographs were sent by Huawei USA employees to China.

Beginning of 2013, Chinese employees of Huawei informed the HQ that T-Mobile is angry with them for repeatedly asking for more information.

“We CAN’T ask TMO any questions about the robot,” a Huawei employee in US wrote in an email back to headquarters. “TMO is VERY angry about the questions that we asked. Sorry we can’t delivery any more information to you.”

The employee, instead, suggested the HQ to send an engineer from China to work with them in the lab to study and research more on the robot and ‘learn’ by using it.

Around April, T-Mobile had threatened Huawei USA employees to cease their access to its lab if they insist on more information on the robot.

Scene 3 : The Great Theft

Unaffected by the threat from T-Mobile, Huawei China sent an engineer from the headquarters to join its USA team. He joined the Huawei USA team in May 2013, and two of Huawei USA employees used their access badges to help the Chinese engineer sneak into the lab where the Tappy robot was placed.

A T-Mobile employee noticed the unauthorised person in the lab and asked him to leave. This Chinese engineer again got access to enter to the lab the very next day by using another employee’s badge. He took multiple photographs, other technical details about Tappy before being discovered by a T-Mobile employee and sent back. The engineer sent all these information to the headquarters in China the same evening.

T-Mobile, on the other hand, suspended the access of all Huawei USA employees into its lab from the very next day. After multiple rounds of negotiation and requests by Huawei USA, T-Mobile finally agreed to allow just one Chinese employee into the lab.

This lone employee, on 29 May 2013, while leaving the lab in the evening stole the testing arm of the robot and took home. At home, he took multiple photographs, measurements of the ‘sensing finger’ of the robot arm and emailed all the information to the headquarters in China.

The next day, when confronted with T-Mobile, the Chinese employee said he carried the arm by ‘mistake.

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