Ypsilanti engineer funneled tech secrets to Iran, FBI says

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By Robert Snell
Source: The Detroit News
The FBI’s counterintelligence team has arrested an Ypsilanti engineer accused of stealing confidential technical data and sending the information to his brother who is linked to Iran’s nuclear weapons industry.

Amin Hasanzadeh

The national security case against Amin Hasanzadeh, an Iranian military veteran, is outlined in a 14-page criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday in federal court in Detroit. The complaint describes a year-long, coordinated plan to steal sensitive, confidential data about a secret project involving an aerospace industry supercomputer and alleges Hasanzadeh emailed the data to his brother in Iran.

The full scope of the investigation was unclear Wednesday and it was unclear whether the technical information Hasanzadeh is accused of sending to his brother would help Iran rebuild a nuclear weapons program halted in 2003.

“We don’t have any concerns that there is a current threat to the safety of the United States,” FBI Special Agent Mara Schneider told The Detroit News.

Hasanzadeh, 42, a hardware engineer who also is a visiting scholar at the University of Michigan, made an initial appearance in federal court Wednesday and was ordered temporarily detained until a bond hearing Friday in downtown Detroit. No defense lawyer was listed in court records.

The Iranian-born citizen, who has lawful permanent resident status in the U.S., is charged with interstate transportation of stolen property and fraud for allegedly lying about serving in the Iranian military.

The case appears to be part of a broader effort by Iran to steal trade secrets and technology that have military and defense applications, said Eric Brewer, deputy director and fellow with the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a bipartisan, nonprofit policy research group based in Washington, D.C.

“Iran certainly does have as a goal improving its military capabilities and uses espionage as a means at its disposal to acquire information and technology it would have a hard time developing indigenously,” Brewer said. 

“Certainly we don’t want Iran stealing sensitive info from U.S. companies but this does not strike me as something that could lead to a revolutionary new military capability on Iran’s part,” Brewer added. “It is not usually the case where one type of technology or bit of information is so revolutionary that it changes the trajectory of a program.”

Iran broke further away from its collapsing 2015 nuclear deal with world powers this week by doubling the number of advanced centrifuges it operates, linking the decision to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement more than a year ago.

The announcement included Iran saying it now has a prototype centrifuge that works 50 times faster than those allowed under the deal, which limited the country’s uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. By starting up these advanced centrifuges, Iran further cut into the one year that experts estimate Tehran would need to have enough material for building a nuclear weapon — if it chose to pursue one.

The unsealed complaint accuses Hasanzadeh of stealing confidential documents and technical data from an unidentified company from January 2015 until June 2016. The company is based in Metro Detroit and serves the defense, aerospace and auto industries.

The company’s president and CEO declined to comment Wednesday.

The data involved in the criminal case included information covered by a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, that was developed by the firm in collaboration with an unidentified partner.

“A senior company official advised that any unauthorized disclosure or theft of partner company documents and information protected under an NDA could be ‘catastrophic,'” the FBI counterintelligence agent in charge of the case wrote in an affidavit filed in federal court. 

The data Hasanzadeh is accused of stealing was emailed to several people, including his brother, Sina Hassanzadeh, according to court records that identify Sina as an Iranian electrical engineer with expertise in hardware engineering and programming code.

Sina Hassanzadeh’s job responsibilities indicate he has worked on military programs, including for Basamad Azma Co., an entity affiliated with Iran’s cruise missile research, according to the FBI agent. His resume also includes working for a company linked to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics “that contributes to Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities and/or its development of nuclear weapons or their delivery systems,” the agent wrote.

The criminal case focuses on Amin Hasanzadeh’s tenure at the Metro Detroit company. As a senior hardware engineer, Hasanzadeh had access to sensitive, confidential and proprietary information, including schematics, layouts, designs, diagrams, performance reports and other data, according to the government.

He also was assigned to one of the Detroit-area company’s most sensitive projects, what court records describe as a real-time supercomputer with applications for the aerospace industry.

“This project involved documents that were not disseminated to the public and had research and development involving millions of dollars,” the agent wrote.

Hasanzadeh and other hardware engineers were not allowed to use personal email accounts to transfer data or send work to personal computers without prior approval, according to the court case. 

Yet Hasanzadeh illegally and secretly transferred trade secrets and confidential documents to his brother in Iran, according to the FBI agent.

Investigators reviewed emails indicating Hasanzadeh applied for a job at the Metro Detroit company because the firm’s technologies and projects were of interest to his brother in Iran, the agent wrote. 

Hasanzadeh started stealing information six days after he started working for the company in January 2015, the agent said.

“Hasanzadeh concealed these communications from (the firm) by almost exclusively using a personal email account to transfer documents to Sina,” the agent wrote.

The documents included drawings and schematics that would have allowed his brother in Iran to replicate the designs, according to the court case.

In April 2016, Hasanzadeh also sent a company report to his brother and wife, who received a doctorate late last year after studying in the University of Michigan’s electrical engineering department, the government said.

Investigators checked her University of Michigan email account and discovered thousands of the Metro Detroit company’s documents stored in the university’s cloud storage, according to the FBI.

Hasanzadeh has worked in UM’s College of Engineering since March, university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said. “The university has fully cooperated with the FBI during its investigation.” 

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