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.

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