The Phoenix Flyer

China a target of anti-espionage legislation that passed first committee votes in FL House, Senate

By: - March 9, 2021 4:42 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to prevent the People’s Republic of China from gaining undue influence. Credit: Getty Images

Legislation increasing penalties for corporate and university espionage — especially when done to benefit overseas countries, particularly China — sailed through its first committee tests Tuesday in the Florida House and Senate.

The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, the first to take up the idea (HB 1523), took less than two minutes to approve it unanimously. No member had any questions; the only thing like debate came when sponsor Mike Beltran, a Republican from Hillsborough County, briefly outlined his bill.

The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice passed the Senate’s version (SB 1378) with similar dispatch later in the day.

“It’s increasingly becoming a really serious problem — one that’s been there, but you know, Florida’s home to some incredible research institutions, industry, defense installations,” said Jennifer Bradley, a Republican whose district sprawls from Clay County to the Gulf Coast.

“We really need to make sure we have the framework in place to prosecute when people steal companies’ innovation, their trade secrets. Or worse, give them to a foreign government that may not be friendly to our interests,” she said following the hearing.

The legislation tackles corporate espionage in all its forms, and Beltran didn’t mention China by name.

But that country was top-of-mind for Gov. Ron DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls when they appeared during a news conference on March 1 to endorse the legislation.

“The Chinese Communist Party’s mass infiltration and theft of American research is well-documented, resulting in numerous arrests at college campuses across the country just within the last couple of years,” the governor said at the time.

“It’s high time we tackled these issues and eliminated any tolerance of clandestine foreign influence in our schools,” DeSantis said.

It’s another example of an initiative by DeSantis and legislative Republicans into domain usually policed by the federal government. Another is their announced plans to crack down on Big Tech for what they consider censorship of conservatives and abuse of users’ personal information.

Trade secrets are economically sensitive business information that can include scientific, technical, or commercial information including lists of suppliers or customers. To qualify for protection as a trade secret, the information has to be secret, of value, for or in use by a business, and of advantage to the business.

According to the Senate bill analysis, the FBI sets the economic damage from trade-secrets theft at billions of dollars per year, affecting biotech, software, auto companies, and more. Additional targets include university research programs and the defense industry.

The U.S. Department of Justice has indicated that some 80 percent of its economic espionage prosecutions involve conduct benefiting the Chinese government, according to the House bill analysis, but U.S. companies also spy on each other.

Florida institutions allegedly targeted for espionage have included the University of Central Florida and Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

The activity is already illegal under state and federal law. The new House language updates the legal definition of trade-secrets theft to include intangible copies of information, such as that stored on the electronic “cloud.”

Both bills would boost felony penalties for theft and trafficking in trade secrets, with the House version providing for sentences of as much as 30 years when an overseas power is involved.

Civil remedies also would apply, including restitution, and prosecutors could seek higher penalties if they can establish an element of racketeering.

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.