Last summer, a seemingly ordinary American died under suspicious circumstances in Singapore. Shane Todd, a recent PhD candidate in electrical engineering, had gone to Singapore to work for the government’s sponsored research center, Institute of Microelectronics (IME). A few days before his death, Todd had accepted a new position with the US technology firm, Nuvotronics. Two days after leaving IME, he was found hanging from his bathroom door. The Singaporean police ruled his death a suicide and informed Todd’s parents that he had drilled holes into his bathroom wall to install a pulley and then hung himself from the contraption. However, when his parents came to collect his things, they saw no holes, bolts or screws in the marble walls. Instead, they found the packed boxes and airline ticket of a man ready to move. They also found an external hard drive that the police had failed to seize during its confiscation of Todd’s laptops.
Before his death, Todd was working on a gallium nitride (GaN) powered radio frequency amplifier. GaN is a relatively new technology, which was first commonly used in jammers during the Iraqi wars to activate roadside bombs. According to files stored on Todd’s hard drive, he was developing GaN for IME’s Chinese partner, Huawei, a telecom company. Some US Congressmen view Huawei as a national security threat as it has sold technology to Iran, Saddam Hussein, and the Taliban in the past.
One year into his project, Todd confided in his parents that he believed he was conned into participating in research that could threaten US national security. Fifteen months after beginning his Singaporean adventure, Todd gave IME notice of his resignation. During the Cold War, the US had enacted laws to prevent US military-grade technology from being transferred to the East. In order to generate GaN, Todd needed to use a US sourced technology from the American firm, Veeco. If the US discovered that Singapore’s IME had transferred such technology to Huawei, both organizations would have faced heavy US penalties and Todd could have faced ten years in prison. Both IME and Huawei deny any collaboration on a GaN project.
The FBI had offered the Singaporean police assistance in investigating Todd’s death, but the police declined. According to FBI, the bureau cannot investigate in another jurisdiction without the country’s cooperation. Foreign governments objecting to extraterritorial jurisdiction should direct their concerns to the US State department, which will then decide whether US national interest is served by persisting.
The law of nations permits the exercise of criminal jurisdiction by the US under six principles: objective, protective, territorial, national, universal, and passive. Objective is when jurisdiction is asserted over acts performed outside the US that produce detrimental effects domestically; protective, over foreigners for an act committed outside the US that may impinge on domestic territorial integrity, security or political independence; territorial, based on the location of the offense; national, based on the offender’s nationality; universal, for crimes so heinous that any nation may assert jurisdiction; passive, the victim’s nationality. Without knowing the cause of Todd’s death or if any foreign offenders were involved, it would be difficult for the US to assert jurisdiction based on the protective or national principles. Since his death occurred in Singapore, the territorial principle could not be used. Instead, the best hope the US has for asserting jurisdiction over the case is under the objective and passive principles. The passive principle has increasingly been accepted as an appropriate basis for extraterritoriality when involving terrorist activities or organized attacks.