A Dutch news outlet reported on April 16 (local time) that Samsung Electronics was responsible for the 2015 software theft from ASML, the world’s largest chip machinery manufacturer based in the Netherlands.
According to LetsGoDigital, a Dutch online news site specializing in information technology, ASML CEO Peter Wennink revealed in an interview on Dutch television that “our biggest Korean customer” was responsible for the espionage.
The CEO was directly asked whether he meant Samsung, but he repeated “our biggest Korean customer.” LetsGoDigital said that although the CEO did not want to call Samsung by name, “it is clear this Korean company is behind the espionage.” It added that ASML came to this conclusion after hiring an external company to find out who was behind the theft.
The theft was first reported by Dutch financial newspaper Financieele Dagblad on April 11 (local time). The paper suggested that the Chinese government was behind the theft by saying that it was orchestrated by ASML’s competitor XTAL, a Silicon Valley affiliate of Chinese company Dongfang Jingyuan. It said the parent company had ties to the Chinese ministry of science and technology and had been given subsidies for a project aimed at boosting China’s position in the chip machinery market.
Following the report, ASML denied that it has been victim of “Chinese espionage.” In a statement released on April 11, ASML CEO Peter Wennink said, “The suggestion that we were somehow victim of a national conspiracy is wrong. The facts of the matter are that we were robbed by a handful of our own employees based in Silicon Valley, who had broken the law to enrich themselves.”
According to the statement, these employees, with various nationalities, stole software for mask optimization, a specific small part of ASML’s broad product and services portfolio, to create a competing product and sell it to an existing ASML customer in South Korea.
The statement also said that the funding for this company XTAL originated from South Korea and China. According to LetsGoDigital, Samsung acquired a 30 percent stake in XTAL in 2016 and ASML lost Samsung as a customer for the stolen software.
ASML responded to the theft by filing a lawsuit against XTAL in 2016 and the Santa Clara Superior Court told XTAL, which is now bankrupt, to pay US$223 million to ASML in November 2018.
Samsung Electronics is one of the biggest customers of ASML. Last year, it purchased extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography equipment from ASML for production of 7-nanometer non-memory chips. The equipment reportedly costs as much as 600 billion won (US$529 million) per unit.
It is unclear how their relationship will unfold after the ASML CEO’s suggestion that Samsung Electronics was behind the corporate espionage.