Business Law & Compliance

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World IP day: How safe are your secrets?

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When key documents about your latest product innovation go missing, there’s nothing worse than stumbling upon something suspiciously similar to your breakthrough product launched by a rival. Sounds like fiction? The danger is far more real than most companies imagine.

Trade secrets represent two thirds of an organisation’s value. Despite this, research shows that more than half of European businesses believe that protecting intellectual property and corporate secrets is less important than safeguarding customer, employee, business and financial information. Today, World Intellectual Property Day focuses on creativity and the next generation. Such an apparently casual attitude to the management of valuable and creative new ideas, however, could be leaving firms exposed to industrial espionage and the loss of any competitive advantage.

While industrial espionage is a term that conjures a world of high-tech gadgets, intelligence agents in trench coats and organised criminal gangs, it actually covers a broad range of activity – not all of it criminal or even malicious. Most companies ignore the severity of the real threat posed, often without intention, by their employees.

In the absence of well-communicated information management and risk policies, employees will develop their own rules to govern what information they can take out of the office. This issue does not just concern the information that leaves or is taken from a company, but about what information is brought in. For example, a recent Iron Mountain study revealed that 53 per cent of respondents would jump at the chance to share company secrets from a previous job with their new employer. This included client data bases, company proposals and strategic plans.

While this may not immediately raise concerns, the survey revealed an interesting correlation between employees who were willing to share information, and a lack of awareness and understanding of information management policies. There is an important message here: measures put in place to protect sensitive and confidential information from leaking out of a company help foster a code of responsible conduct. This will encourage employees to respect the sensitivity of all the information they handle – regardless of whether it belongs to their previous or current employer.

Most people draw the line at breaking and entering a company’s premises in order to deliberately remove or copy confidential information. If you overheard a rival’s plans in the queue for coffee at a conference, however, wouldn’t you choose to share that information with colleagues? Between these extremes there is a grey area where employee actions are governed by their personal value system. Good information management guidelines can help employees define the underpinning values.

Therefore, this year’s World IP Day should remind companies of the importance of intellectual property to their business. It’s the perfect time to commit to fostering a culture of information responsibility that starts at the top and filters into every level of the organisation. By rewarding and reinforcing good behaviours, not only with regards to its own secrets, but to those held by other organisations as well, you will develop a culture of good information management practice across the board with little scope for confusion.

The most effective information management guidelines are not just those that physically protect information by controlling its storage, distribution, access, security and destruction. Even management guidelines that best educate employees in how information can inadvertently be revealed fail in comparison to encouraging employees to feel a sense of pride in, personal ownership of, and responsibility for their company’s information.

Christian Toon is the head of information risk at Iron Mountain.

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