Huawei's legal troubles take a twist with T-Mobile's torture-test robot

Here's the surreal tale of Tappy the robot.

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4 min read

Meet Tappy, the T-Mobile phone testing robot Huawei was allegedly desperate to replicate.

T-Mobile YouTube/Screenshot by CNET

As a robot designed to torture smartphones , Tappy looks pretty harmless. 

Which is why it's a little surprising that Tappy, built by T-Mobile , now plays a central role in an international incident involving Huawei , the world's largest telecom equipment supplier and second-largest smartphone maker. 

On Monday, Huawei was slapped with a 10-count Department of Justice indictment, not only for the alleged theft of a piece of Tappy, but for the company's role in encouraging the behavior. The Justice Department says that behavior suggests a willingness to steal trade secrets that's systemic to Huawei's culture. 

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The indictment was part of a massive legal broadside against Huawei by the US government, and it was accompanied by a second, 13-count indictment related to Huawei's alleged evasion of US sanctions to work with Iran. The charges come amid heightened global scrutiny of the Chinese company, with a number of countries following in the US's footsteps and banning its networking products, which some fear give the Chinese government a potential backdoor into businesses and governments around the world. 

Huawei, for its part, denies any wrongdoing.

"The allegations in the Western District of Washington trade secret indictment were already the subject of a civil suit that was settled by the parties after a Seattle jury found neither damages nor willful and malicious conduct on the trade secret claim," said a company spokesman. 

What Huawei doesn't deny, however, is the wild story of how Huawei employees photographed the robot's arm and, when things got really crazy, one tried to take part of it home to send back to China. 

Here's Tappy's story.

Tappy's origins

I'm in T-Mobile's Bellevue, Washington, headquarters, just outside Seattle, staring at Tappy do its thing. It's, well, underwhelming. 

The robot arm has a small attachment at the end that lets it assert the same kind of pressure on a touchscreen as a human finger. It moves around different parts of the screen and hits buttons and icons like a normal person would -- only it duplicates the tasks automatically and more rapidly, allowing the carrier to stress-test devices that would run on its network. It's just a small part of the certification process that handset makers go through to ensure that T-Mobile will sell its devices. 

The T-Mobile representative who showed me around got a little hushed when he spoke about Tappy. That's because it was 2015, a year after it came out that the carrier had sued Huawei. 

But let's go back to the beginning. 

Tappy was created by T-Mobile test engineer David Jenkinson in 2007 as a way to mimic human behavior and break phones en masse, revealing their most common problems.

The carrier was selective about who it allowed ot access the special area of its Bellevue lab where Tappy was kept, and those people signed confidentiality agreements saying they wouldn't take photos or videos, or try to reverse-engineer the robot, according to the Associated Press.

However, Huawei made a deal with T-Mobile to start selling its devices in the US, and some of the its engineers were allowed into Tappy's lab to test Huawei phones in 2012.

The heist

Giving Huawei employees access to the certification center -- an area that's closely guarded because of competition concerns with other carriers -- allegedly sparked a scheme to steal Tappy's secrets and send them back to China. The hope was that Huawei could create its own version, called xDeviceRobot, the AP reported.

In 2013, a pair of Huawei engineers were allegedly dispatched to Seattle to get all the information they could on Tappy.

One even smuggled a Tappy robot arm out of the lab in his laptop bag, but returned it the following day, according to the AP. While the arm was missing, the engineer allegedly sent measurements and photos back to China.

When the US carrier learn of the scheme and threatened to sue, Huawei claimed the engineers responsible were just "rogue actors" within the company. 

The US carrier learned of its efforts and threatened to sue, the indictment noted, so Huawei allegedly made a false report that saying the engineers were responsible. T-Mobile sued and won its case against Huawei in 2017, when a jury awarded it $4.8 million.

But, as Huawei noted, the jury didn't find the company "willful and malicious."

That story changed on Monday. 

Companywide conspiracy?

The Justice Department on Monday painted a picture of a company that was wholly involved with the attempt to steal Tappy (or at least, part of him).

Emails obtained by investigators revealed that Huawei employees and engineers across the company conspired to steal T-Mobile's secrets. It even offered workers bonuses "based on the value of information they stole from other companies around the world, and provided to Huawei via an encrypted email address," according to the Justice Department. 

"The charges unsealed today clearly allege that Huawei intentionally conspired to steal the intellectual property of an American company in an attempt to undermine the free and fair global marketplace," said FBI Director Christopher Wray in a statement. "To the detriment of American ingenuity, Huawei continually disregarded the laws of the United States in the hopes of gaining an unfair economic advantage."

T-Mobile declined to comment on the matter.

Huawei could face a fine of up to either $5 million or three times the value of the stolen trade secret, for conspiracy and attempt to steal trade secrets. The company could also face a fine of up to $500,000 for wire fraud and obstruction of justice.

More devastating, however, is the hit that Huawei takes on its reputation. The wave of bad news is a torture test of its own. 

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