For some firms, trade secrets and proprietary technology are their single largest competitive advantage. Unfortunately, these advantages are becoming ever more vulnerable to exploitation by corporate spies. Even though it is illegal, industrial espionage continues to be a threat for global firms, and it is critical that businesses take steps to protect their most vital information. Unfortunately, many perpetrators of corporate espionage are affiliated with foreign governments or remain anonymous, making prosecution difficult if not impossible. That is why it is crucial for firms to adopt a defensive posture against this ever-persistent threat. The following are 10 simple strategies businesses can follow in order to reduce their risk of corporate espionage and maintain their competitive edge.
Identify Your Companies Trade Secrets
The first step to protecting a company’s trade secrets is to identify exactly what those secrets are. This not only involves looking inward, but looking outward as well. Firms cannot deduce the true value of their trade secrets until they understand how these secrets stack up against the technology and best practices of their competitors. By properly evaluating their intellectual property, firms will be more able to establish priorities and allocate security resources to better protect their most vital secrets.
Identify the Threats
Before firms develop strategies to counter industrial espionage, they need to understand what organizations present the largest threat. For instance, a company’s competitors may pose the most obvious danger. However, it should be kept in mind that visitors, customers, business partners, hackers, activist groups, and even foreign national governments are all potential threats and should be considered when building a counterespionage plan.
Ensure Physical Security
The same measures that are effective against run-of-the-mill criminals are also effective at protecting businesses from industrial spies. As such, firms should ensure the physical security of their offices, equipment, and infrastructure. This means setting up surveillance systems, securing entry points, and hiring or contracting specialized personnel. It is particularly important that firms identify the most sensitive information and facilities and ensure that these are given extra layers of protection.
Establish Policies for Controlling Information
In many instances, the unwanted disclosure of secrets could have been easily avoided if firms had simply put more thought into controlling the flow of information. Firms should establish policies on what information employees can share inside and outside the workplace. They should also establish procedures for control, reproduction, and storage of sensitive data. Particular attention should be paid to what is disseminated over the Internet and social media sites. Additionally, firms should develop procedures for the proper disposal of paper documents, IT hardware, and other sensitive equipment.
Train the Workforce
While firms may enact policies on the proper storage, control, and dissemination of information, they also need to ensure that their employees are trained to follow these procedures. Firms should conduct periodic training and awareness campaigns to inform employees about the threat from industrial espionage and the importance of information security. Employees should understand that the threat from espionage is internal as well as external. As such, they should instruct workers on the correct procedures for identifying and reporting suspicious activity.
Not all information needs to be accessible by every employee in a company. That is why information should be compartmentalized on a need to know basis. Even senior members of a particular corporation may not need to know every technical detail about business operations. As such, firms should put in place policies to segregate which employees have access to which information, with special attention given to those employees who have access to a company’s most vital trade secrets.
Conduct Background Checks and Monitoring
Firms should conduct a background checks on all employees with access to sensitive data. This may even include often-overlooked individuals such as janitors, caterers, and groundkeepers. Specifically, firms should attempt to identify any possible factors that could make a particular worker more prone to illegally disclosing information. Firms should also continue to carry out periodic security evaluations of their employees even after they have initially been vetted.
Establish Employee Exit Procedures
It is critical that business develop comprehensive employee exit policies. From day one, an employee needs to understand the firm’s policies on information security.
This means that all employees should be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and be reminded of this agreement upon leaving the firm. Moreover, firms should be aware that most cases of intellectual property theft perpetrated by employees occur during their last month of work. This is why it is important to make an employee’s exit as smooth and resentment-free as possible. Companies may also consider limiting the access workers who are expected to leave the organization in the near future.
Ensure Cyber Security
Industrial espionage is increasingly becoming the purview of the cyber realm. Therefore, it is important for companies to maintain robust cyber security frameworks. Even while systems should look outward to protect a company from external threats, they should also look inward. Cyber security professionals should monitor their internal networks to uncover suspicious activity and record the transmission, copying, and accessing of sensitive files. Additionally, firms should consider leveraging specialized software to protect critical information, monitor activity, and prevent data loss.
Establish Contingency and Crisis Management Plans
Even the best-laid plans can go wrong. That is why it is important for companies to develop contingency and crisis strategies in the event of intellectual property theft. Firms should attempt to assess the potential damage caused by the theft of trade secrets and develop response plans. They should consider losses to their competitiveness as well as losses to their reputation. Additionally, it is a good idea for firms to have a legal strategy in the wake of an incident of corporate espionage. After all, industrial espionage is illegal in many countries, including the United States, and offenders can face stiff sentences.