Cold War Technology Sought By Spy Is In Your Pocket — Sort Of

Federal authorities have arrested a Chinese national who is accused of trying to buy accelerometers from a company in suburban Seattle. Certain kinds of accelerometers are subject to export controls, because they're used to guide missiles and spacecraft. The U.S. has been trying to keep accelerometer technology under wraps for half a century. Even as some accelerometers were used to guide Cold War missiles into space and around the world, today's technological descendents allow you to play racing games on your iPhone.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

And now to All Tech Considered.

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CORNISH: Today is a tricky business of keeping some American technologies out of foreign hands. When a man from Hong Kong met with an aerospace company in Seattle last week, he was really dealing with an undercover Homeland Security agent. See Kee Chin allegedly tried to buy $85,000 worth of highly specialized accelerometers. He was arrested and charged with trying to smuggle the parts to China.

The bust is just one example of a constant U.S. effort to keep certain technologies under wraps. Accelerometers are widely used - you can even find them in Smartphones.

But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the ones Mr. Chin is accused of trying to buy could be used in missiles.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Adam Bruckner is a professor in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the University of Washington. And he's old-school. In his office, he has stacks of paper that haven't been sorted since the '80s and spaceship models that date back to Apollo. He offers this old-school description of what an accelerometer does.

ADAM BRUCKNER: The simplest approach to an accelerometer is to hang a small weight from a spring. And the spring will stretch or shrink, depending on how fast this thing is accelerating. And the little pointer shows you, on the dial, what your acceleration is.

KASTE: Back in the 1950s, that concept was used to guide missiles around the world. Imagine the challenge of that - using weights, springs and spinning gyroscopes - they could steer a rocket all the way to Vladivostok. Nowadays, accelerometers track movement inside your Smartphone and they've also changed.

BRUCKNER: If you rattle your iPhone, you're not going to hear anything rattling around in it. So it's all solid state, basically.

KASTE: In some modern accelerometers, movement is captured by micro-electromechanical structures flexing almost imperceptibly on a silicon chip. In others, special kinds of ceramic or crystal generate power when they're squeezed by a tiny test weight. To engineers, these methods are mostly old hat but some accelerometers are more impressive than others.

BRUCKNER: The Chinese can make these crystals or these ceramics just as well as we can. It's what goes with them that allows this device to do what you want it to do.

KASTE: The Chinese citizen arrested in Seattle last week was trying to buy accelerometers made for spacecraft - Honeywell's QA-3000 line, in case you're in the market.

Bill Argue runs counter-proliferation investigations for Homeland Security. And while he can't discuss the case in Seattle, he says guidance systems in general are very much on China's shopping list.

BILL ARGUE: China is developing, you know, their next-generation combat aircraft in part by seeking out U.S. origin goods.

KASTE: Those accelerometers in Seattle were export-restricted, governed by something called the International Traffic in Arms Regulations or ITAR. It's an acronym that strikes fear in the hearts of law-abiding engineers.

KRISTI MORGANSEN: Very bad, don't mess with it.

KASTE: Kristi Morgansen is also on faculty at the University of Washington, where she often builds projects with these ITAR-restricted devices.

MORGANSEN: Don't go there. If we - if anybody at the university is ever accused of violating ITAR, the university will not back you. You're on your own and they're very clear about this.

KASTE: ITAR is a bright red line but foreign buyers keep trying. Investigators say they're seeing purchase attempts now through front companies, as well as through recent immigrants who don't always understand the legal risks. Morgansen says she doesn't think the law can keep these technologies bottled up forever. But she says it might stall things long enough to allow American accelerometer makers to keep their technological edge.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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