Planned Parenthood, Ashley Madison, and Trade-Secrets Theft

It’s been a busy week for corporate espionage. Planned Parenthood is under fire for a video in which its employees were discussing the sale of fetal tissue. Now, Planned Parenthood’s senior counsel is warning that they expect more videos will be released in the coming weeks. These videos were apparently secretly recorded by an organization called The Center for Medical Progress, which opposes abortion.

Separately, Ashley Madison, an online dating website that targets married people looking to have affairs, had all of its customer information stolen. This information has obvious value — the site’s 37 million (!!!) users certainly don’t want their identities revealed. (This information could easily qualify as a trade secret, assuming that the company took reasonable measures to protect it.) The hackers have threatened to release the customer information if Ashley Madison doesn’t shut down its website.

It’s safe to say that you aren’t reading this blog for opinions on abortion or the moral issues surrounding the Ashley Madison website. Which is good, since I have zero interest in getting involved in the underlying debates. But I am interested in what these two stories say about the risks companies face from corporate espionage and trade-secrets theft.

Certainly, Planned Parenthood and Ashley Madison are highly visible targets, which must have been aware that they were susceptible to corporate espionage/hacking. But corporate espionage and trade-secrets theft isn’t limited to controversial or high-profile companies.

All companies need to examine their risk. Most have some type of information that would be valuable in a competitors’ hands. This information could, for example, be taken by a departing employee who is going to work for a competing company. Similarly, companies with robust consumer data are targets for hackers.

I say this often, but it can’t be emphasized enough: Companies must focus on the legal and technical protections necessary to minimize their risk. If you are not identifying your key information, assessing your vulnerabilities, and taking proactive steps to shore them up, you are much more likely to be the victim of corporate espionage or trade-secrets theft. Addressing these issues can seem overwhelming, but that’s no reason to ignore them. If you don’t know where to start, speak with an attorney who specializes in this area of the law.

Small-Town Trade Secrets Fight

Trade secrets are not the exclusive dominion of big business. Virtually all companies have, or at least could have, trade secrets. And all companies face serious risks if they don’t protect their trade secrets. A recent case from the Idaho Supreme Court gives a good example of how even the smallest companies need to focus on trade-secret protection.

La Bella Vita v. Shuler (download here) involves a trade-secrets dispute between two competing hair salons in a small town in Idaho. After a number of employees left the Plaintiff (La Bella Vita) to open a competing salon (Eikova) around the corner, La Bella Vita sued the departing employees, Eikova, and Eikova’s owner (Amanda Schuler). Schuler was La Bella Vita’s former manager. La Bella Vita alleged that the defendants violated their confidentiality agreements and misappropriated trade secrets, including La Bella Vita’s customer information.

The lower court granted summary judgment in the defendants favor, finding no evidence of trade secrets, no misappropriation, and no violation of the agreements. The Idaho Supreme Court reversed, finding a number of genuine issues of material fact.

For a hair salon in small-town Idaho, La Bella Vida was at least somewhat proactive about protecting its confidential information. For example, all employees were required to sign confidentiality agreements. Like many businesses, La Bella Vida was most concerned about protecting its customer information. Over time, it had accumulated a valuable proprietary database about its customers, including each customer’s order history and preferences.

This case centers around whether the customer list was a trade secret, including whether it contained confidential information, and whether La Bella Vida protected it. For example, when Schuler was La Bella Vita’s manager, she used the customer list to create an invite list for her baby shower. When she left, she used the baby-shower list to create Eikova’s customer list. The parties disagree as to whether La Bella Vita’s owner authorized her to use the list for her shower.

La Bella Vita required that all employees sign confidentiality agreements. And all parties testified that they understood that the list needed to be kept confidential. But La Bella Vita could have gone further. Schuler was obviously a key employee. La Bella Vita should have considered having her sign a noncompete or nonsolicitation agreement. And it could have password protected the customer list so that each stylist could only see their own clients, and so that no one could export the entire list. If no one could export the list, it would have been very difficult to create the baby-shower list without the owner’s authorization.

Those relatively minor steps could have saved a lot of money, not to mention heartache. Regardless of how this lawsuit turns out, both sides will likely have spent huge amounts of money litigating. I have no idea what it costs to litigate a case to the Idaho Supreme Court. Nor do I know anything about how much revenue an Idaho salon could generate. But I’m comfortable saying that both La Bella Vida and Eikova will have spent a material amount of their revenue, and suffered through a lot of mental anguish, litigating this case.

All businesses should speak with an attorney who can help them identify their trade secrets and take steps to protect them. A modest investment in protection now can prevent a disaster later.

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