Protecting Against Intellectual Property Theft By Ex-Employees

30 July 2010

According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of unemployed people in Britain increased by 177,000 in the three months to February 2009, driven by a large number of redundancies. As businesses layoff staff in droves in a bid to survive the recession, many are failing to put adequate computer security measures in place to protect against abuse by disgruntled ex-employees.

And the threat of intellectual property theft should not be underestimated. According to a recent study of US workers by security research firm Ponemon, 59% of workers took company data with them when leaving their job. It is thought that many ex-employees steal data in the belief that it will help them win work or start their own business, while some are thought to have malicious intent, planning to sell the data to competitors or use it to make sensitive information public.

“They are making these judgements based out of fear and anxiety,” Ponemon’s Mike Spinney told BBC News. People are worried about their jobs and want to hedge their bets. Our study showed that 59% of people will say ‘I’m going to take something of value with me when I go’.”

For businesses concerned about exposure to intellectual property theft by ex-employees, there are a number of steps that can be taken. Most simply, the type of data taken outside of the company should be monitored closely once notice has been served. This may sound obvious, but in fact the Ponemon study revealed that only 15% of companies involved in the study made any attempt to audit the materials that ex-employees leave with.

To prevent the electronic theft of data, it is wise to monitor the email activity of all employees. According to privacy laws, the content of employees emails should not be viewed unless misuse is suspected, so it is worth installing automated software which monitors email traffic without the need for human intervention, and sends an alert to the administrator in the event of unusual activity, such as the transmission of several large attachments.

In addition, it is wise to either prohibit the use of external storage devices such as USB flash drives by all employees in order to prevent large amounts of data moving outside the corporate workspace. However, if such devices are necessary in the course on an employee­s work, use should be monitored to ensure data is not stolen in the event of termination. Again, there is software available which can perform this function.

If a business suspects that sensitive data has been stolen by a terminated employee, it is important that every effort is made to preserve the evidence so that it can be used to take legal action to recover the information and prevent it from entering the public domain. Even turning a computer on can alter the data contained within it, so it is wise to engage the services of a computer forensic analyst to carry out the investigation. Such an expert will be able to analyse the registry information on the suspected employees computer to ascertain if data has been transmitted by email or transferred to a removable storage device, even if that device is no longer present.

While measures to protect against data theft may seem time-consuming to implement, with Ponemon estimating that a single lost record costs the average business £47, it may well be an investment worth making.

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