Bottom-up computer crime

Not all of the crime in America in the U.S. happens in hotel rooms between old men and young women… From a WIRED article on stealing purified silicon:

Wasi Ismail Syed had endured a draining day of travel by the time he picked up his rental van at the Pensacola, Florida, airport. He’d left his West Coast home that morning in February 2009, then weathered a lengthy layover in Houston. But rather than pining for a comfy hotel bed, Syed was excited to conduct a bit of late-night business: He was meeting two strangers who called themselves Butch Cassidy and William Smith outside a nearby Walmart.

Cassidy and Smith unloaded the 5-gallon painter’s buckets that filled their truck. Syed pried open one of the buckets’ lids and peered inside. He was pleased by what he saw: a pile of rock-like chunks of a silvery metallic substance. These were fragments of polycrystalline silicon, a highly purified form of silicon that is the bedrock for semiconductor devices and solar cells. … the average price … $64 a pound.

on the outskirts of Mobile, Alabama … Mitsubishi Polycrystalline Silicon America Corporation … The plant’s feedstock is metallurgical-grade silicon, which can be extracted from pulverized chunks of quartzite. In this raw form, silicon exhibits the properties that make the element so essential to the tech industry: It can both conduct and resist electricity—hence the term semiconductor—even at high temperatures. But metallurgical-grade silicon is far too tainted with flecks of iron, aluminum, and calcium to be usable in high tech products that are expected to perform flawlessly for years on end. The material must thus be chemically refined, a process that begins by mixing it with hydrogen chloride at more than 570 degrees Fahrenheit.

After having its impurities removed through multiple rounds of distillation, the resulting hazardous compound, called trichlorosilane, is pumped into a cylindrical furnace containing 7-foot-tall silicon rods shaped like tuning forks. Hydrogen is then added and the temperature is turned up to more than 1,830 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes hyper-pure crystals of silicon to leech out of the trichlorosilane and glom onto the rods. After several days the rods are thick with grayish polysilicon, which is then cut into foot-long cylinders, cleansed with acids until glittery, and packaged in thermally sealed bags for shipment.

When the vast majority of manufacturers reach the end of this process, their polysilicon is as much as 99.999999 percent pure, or “8n” in industry parlance. This means that for every 100 million silicon atoms, there is but a single atom’s worth of impurity. … What the Mitsubishi plant in Alabama produces, by contrast, is 11n polysilicon, marred by just one impure atom per every 100 billion silicon atoms. … Mitsubishi’s facility on the Theodore Industrial Canal is one of fewer than a dozen plants worldwide that produce 11n polysilicon.

The Walmart parking-lot deal went smoothly, and Syed’s buyer was impressed by the quality of the merchandise. So Syed kept doing business with “Cassidy” and “Smith”: He bought another 441 pounds of poly­silicon two weeks after the initial purchase, then 1,323 pounds more in July 2009, then 2.2 tons that November, shortly after he’d moved his family and company to McKinney, Texas. As the scale of the transactions grew, Syed enlisted a freight company to pick up the polysilicon in Alabama and truck it across state lines to his customers; then he, his assistant, or his brother-in-law, Shahab Mir, would travel to Mobile, Pensacola, or Shreveport, Louisiana, to hand over the cash.

More: read WIRED

2 thoughts on “Bottom-up computer crime

  1. Crimes aside, it is good to be in the game. More and more US born individuals are not even aware that opportunities exist, since most of consumer products are being made abroad. If Mr Syed felt he was not guilty he could risk trial. After all, it is the jury who convicts but the judge is the one who sentences. Looks like that the jury convicted home boys despite they were home boys, it could also acquit mr Syed if he proved he were not guilty despite he was an outsider.

  2. Pretty sure that taking a peak inside a bucket of silicon would ruin even 8 9’s of purity. Sounds like the old story about how Intel engineers couldn’t figure out the source of diminishing chip yields – until they saw a security guard opening and inspecting silicon wafers as they were being delivered.

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