Shane Todd. Photo courtesy the Todd family.
"Mom, I’m going to call you every week," 31-year-old Shane Todd reportedly told his mother before he was found dead last June in an alleged suicide in Singapore. "If you don’t hear from me for a week, call the American embassy."
It's possible Todd hanged himself, as the Singaporean police ruled when his body was found, but his family doesn't buy it. They suspect he was murdered over his work on a military-grade technology that was potentially worth billions.
The case has attracted the attention of three members of Congress, the FBI, and the Secretary of State, prompting the Singaporean government to order a public inquest. There are many unanswered questions. Who accessed Todd’s computer after his death? Why did his alleged suicide notes sound so unlike him? And if Todd’s death wasn’t a suicide, who would have wanted to kill him?
The answer to that question starts with the Cold War, when the US enacted a series of export laws aimed at preventing American technology from making its way to the Eastern bloc. These laws prohibited the transfer of military-grade technologies to some countries, while requiring export licenses to send less sensitive technologies to friendlier ones.
The answer starts with the Cold War
The elaborate "technology transfer" rules are a perennial cause for griping. Companies in the nuclear industry, for example, find the rules onerous, especially when exporting commercial tech that happens to have a military use case.
In Todd’s case, his employer may have tried to provide restricted tech to a Chinese company that probably could not have gotten it legitimately because China is subject to strict standards. Chinese companies often clash with US regulators over this issue, Mike Wessel, a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, told The Verge.
Todd was allegedly developing a radio frequency amplifier using gallium nitride, a relatively new semiconductor up to ten times as efficient as current technology. Its first widespread use was in Iraq and Afghanistan, when American troops used it in jammers that blocked the radio signals used to set off roadside bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Gallium nitride-based radar, satellite communications, and smart missile systems can be made lighter and more powerful than their predecessors.
Gallium nitride is also used in LEDs and cellphone towers. However, the amplifier in Todd’s plans specified frequencies "well above" cellular networks and was more in line with the levels needed for radar, said Robert York, an electrical engineer and professor at University of California Santa Barbara, a leader in gallium nitride research.
The link between Todd’s death and the amplifier is circumstantial. "It could very well have been a completely different project that he was working on that led to his concerns about his personal safety," professor York said in an email. However, a gallium nitride amplifier is the kind of "truly revolutionary" defense technology a nation with an up-and-coming military would be extremely interested in.
Todd’s employer, the government-owned Singaporean Institute of Microelectronics (IME), would have had to apply for an export license in order to purchase the equipment and formula for "growing" gallium nitride on a silicon substrate, which must be done in a superheated oven. Evidence on his hard drive suggests a license was granted for a technology transfer from the US company Veeco, but it seems the formula or "recipe" was not included.
"He was like, ‘yeah, this is a little shady.’"
Instead, Todd told his brother that he was going to copy it by hand during a Veeco training session in New Jersey. "He was like, ‘yeah, this is a little shady,’" his brother Dylan said in a radio interview.
By now, a new player was involved. Todd told his family that IME was working with a Chinese company he didn’t trust. On his hard drive was a plan outlining a project with Huawei, the telecom giant that has been partially frozen out of the US market. A recent Congressional report called Huawei a national security threat, in part because of its close ties with the Chinese government.
If IME intended to pass technology to Huawei, the companies could be fined by the US government for up to five times the value of the technology; the US’s extremely friendly relationship with Singapore could be endangered; and Todd could have gone to jail for up to ten years.
Todd’s family said he was trying to escape IME for months as he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with what he was being asked to do. He tried to quit with 60 days notice, but IME persuaded him to tack on an extra 30 days. "IME was trying to convince him to stay until the end," his brother Dylan recalled.
Todd finally succeeded in extricating himself, landing a new job back in the US at the research firm Nuvotronics. On Friday, June 22nd, he celebrated his last day over lunch with coworkers from IME. Two days later, his girlfriend found his body hanging in his apartment.
Todd told his family he was working with a Chinese company he didn't trust
The Todd family’s theory of what happened is somewhat xenophobic, but they’re the only ones who have put forth a real theory. Todd’s father suspects his son was killed by hitmen hired by Huawei. His son knew too much and was not being cooperative, Rick Todd said, and furthermore was about to join a potentially competitive company that calls itself "a leading innovator in radio frequency (RF) hardware and defense technology."
IME and Huawei both deny that the companies were working on a gallium nitride project together.
Gallium nitride on a silicon wafer. Image credit: IMEC
"Huawei does not do military technology nor do we discuss it with partners," Huawei said in a statement to The Verge, noting that the company has 70,000 employees engaged in research and development.
Todd’s father suspects his son was killed by hitmen hired by Huawei
Sources familiar with the case suggested that Huawei — founded by a veteran of the Chinese army — may have been interested in a gallium nitride amplifier for commercial use. None of the experts who examined Todd’s hard drive could say with 100 percent certainty what the plans were for.
If Huawei was involved, the company could have given the technology to the Chinese government. It’s also possible that Huawei was developing military systems for sale. Huawei has sold equipment to Iran, Saddam Hussein, and the Taliban, according to a group of Republican Senators who have agitated against Huawei’s entry into the US.
Still no answers
The case is far from solved. Gallium nitride expertise is still relatively rare, and there may have been other parties looking for the information Todd had — especially if he was on the brink of a technological breakthrough, as his family says. Gallium nitride technology has been heavily pursued by companies and governments in the US, Japan, and Europe. The value of Todd's research "potentially, depending on the application, would go into the billions," said Asif Anwar, who researches the defense industry as a director at the global consulting firm Strategy Analytics.
Todd’s family recently retained five Singaporean attorneys from three firms. A coroner’s inquest is scheduled in Singapore from May 13th to May 28th. "It was originally scheduled as a two day thing, but it’s got such international attention now," Rick Todd said. "There’s a lot to be answered here."