A China-based employee who worked at chip equipment giant ASML, and allegedly stole technology secrets from the company, went on to work for US sanctions-hit Huawei Technologies, Dutch newspaper NRC has claimed.
ASML detailed the chip technology theft, which happened in 2022, in its annual report in February this year.
The chip-equipment maker has since increased its internal security to tackle corporate espionage risks, the NRC said in a report that cited sources in and around ASML.
ASML said in February that the stolen technology was not “material to our business” but that it may have violated “certain export control regulations”.
NRC said ASML CEO Peter Wennink told investors at the time that the stolen technology was “one piece of a puzzle that you don’t have the box for.”
ASML is Europe’s most valuable company with a near-monopoly over the machines vital to making cutting-edge chips. These machines, known as lithography machines, have been increasingly targeted under Dutch and US export controls.
The company’s most advanced ‘extreme ultraviolet’ or EUV machines have never been sold to Chinese customers.
But ASML has been able to sell its second tier product line — lithography machines using lightwaves in the deep ultraviolet light spectrum, or “DUV” machines — to Chinese customers.
“In principle the 1980s would fall under the export control restrictions, but only when … (they) are used for advanced semiconductor manufacturing,” Wennink had said following the announcement of those sanctions.
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Huawei powering China’s chip breakthroughs
ASML’s EUV equipment is critical to the development of the smallest advanced chips that are necessary for advancements in technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Smaller chips have greater computing power.
China has, however, lagged behind in the domestic development of chips below 7 nanometres — or 7nm. The country is expecting its first ever home-grown lithography machine this year, but it will only be able to produce 28nm chips.
A potential breakthrough for China could come from Huawei, however, which filed a patent for an EUV lithography machine just months before ASML reported the tech secrets theft.
Less than a year later, in August this month, Huawei quietly launched its Mate 60 Pro smartphone that experts say is powered by a 7nm chip developed by China’s state-backed chipmaker SMIC.
Chinese state media hailed Huawei over the launch, claiming the technology giant had ‘defeated’ US sanctions implemented in 2018, that drove the company to the brink of collapse.
Huawei has since sold millions of the new phone and overtaken Apple in terms of market share in the world’s biggest smartphone market.
- Vishakha Saxena