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Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

Posted February 25, 2009 12:00 AM by Sharkles


Do you get attached to your work? As a writer, I am quite fond of things that I've written. Whether it's an academic paper or a published blog entry, there is a part of me in each document. I know I'm not alone in this either. Completing a task you've taken the time to do well can make you feel proud or accomplished.

When you're employed, having pride in your completed work is beneficial for both you and your employer. With unemployment rates on the rise, however, some people are taking their work with them when they leave their jobs behind.

Sense of Ownership vs. Corporate Confidentiality

A recent Ponemon Institute survey found that a majority of people who have either lost or left their jobs in the past 12 months have taken confidential company information with them. Of the 945 people surveyed, 59% admitted to stealing company data - including client contact lists, customer data, software tools, and other intellectual property. The Symantec-sponsored survey also found that 67% of the people surveyed used the appropriated information to leverage a new job elsewhere.

Participants in the survey came from a range of vertical industries and held positions in corporate information technology (IT), finance, sales, marketing and communications, management, logistics, research and development, and human resources.

According to the survey, information was most-commonly taken via email-related documents or hard copies. Many times, the employees were able to walk out the door with copies in their hands. Others downloaded the information to CDs or DVDs. Still others transferred material to USB thumb-drives.

Many people offered reasons for taking information, but the biggest claim was that these workers felt as though they had a right to it because they created it, that the data was useful to them, or that it wasn't useful to their former employers. The Ponemon Institute survey also showed a correlation between people who lifted information and how they felt about their former company. Over 60% of the survey participants reported having an unfavorable view of the firm they were leaving.

Who's at Fault?

Kevin Rowney, founder of the data-loss prevention division at Symantec, believes that people are not taking data to be malicious, but are doing so mainly out of fear. "There are many tragic scenarios now where people are under tremendous pressure…A lot is in the heat of the moment, people make unwise decisions," said Rowney.

The Ponemon Institute also revealed that part of the problem may lie with the companies themselves. Only 15% of the participants' companies said they reviewed or audited documents or files that were taken. The Institute also reported that if there was a review of such documents, it was very poor or superficial.

Mike Spinney of the Ponemon Institute says that many organizations see data breaches as with a part of doing business and often have a lax attitude about them. "They believe this is just something they have to live with. Our sense is that a lot of companies have really just given up," he said.

Security experts believe that the state of the economy will only increase the number of inside data thefts.

Personally, I am not surprised at the outcome of this survey. For many people who've been affected by the economy, taking information that could help them land a new job probably seems like a necessary measure. I don't build things or write programs. I imagine that if I did, however, I would feel a sense of ownership as well.

It's a dicey issue, but do you think it's acceptable to compromise ethics to save oneself from hard economic times?

Resources:

http://news.cnet.com/8301-1009_3-10170006-83.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7902989.stm

http://www.networkworld.com/news/2009/022309-fired-workers-steal-data.html?page=1

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#1

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/25/2009 5:19 AM

Great subject...
I took circuit diagrams of stuff I'd designed when I left my last company, but for reference, I wouldn't use the 'whole design' to produce a product, and while the circuit is legally the intellectual property of my former employer they don't own my though processes.
Thus I see the circuit diagrams as merely a time saver for me, rather than laboriously haveing to recall my previous work I have a record of it.
I wonder what the legal stance would be if I sat with a blank piece of paper and recreated one of my previous designs...am I in breach of copyright or stealing their intellectual property? What if I re-write some code but with the modules slightly re arranged and re-named?
As I see it, if the end product isn't competing with their product there isn't a product...so if I design a dishwasher dosing system with similar circuitry to a medical drug delivery device I previously worked on there would be no problem, even though circuit techniques and software may be distinctly similar.
There is a big distinction between the stuff I created and the other stuff, say customer lists etc...now that would be theft as I see it.... but my personal contacts book? hmmm ..

I see some good discussion on the way.
Del

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#11
In reply to #1

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/26/2009 4:33 AM

Looks like you are describing the patent process but I totally agree with you. Some data / information we "take" from our previous employer and that was created by us could be considered as a patent. Although the previous employer is considered the owner of the patent, you are as well. Most employers have clauses in contracts for employees to say that they are not allowed to compete in the same field for say two years (i.e.). This is to cover for these circumstances. In all I think it is ok to use data you created as reference.

For example you might have developed an efficient calculation method for electric motor performance which you are able to use in your new job. You can't pass on the method itself to your new employer but in my opinion you can pass on the fruits of it.

Legally I think neither (previous) employer nor employee have a solid ground in this and as long as you don't abuse it (like stealing customers of your previous employer, or giving your new employer a technological advantage from data you took), there is not much that can be done to controll it.

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#2

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/25/2009 7:59 AM

An extreme case would be a job candidate touting actual company secrets of their past employer to a future employer. A case like that should get their resume deposited in the round file.

One thing that I believe helps a potential employee to get the job is when the candidate shows good general knowledge of the future employers processes. Especially when it is based on past experience.

One thing we have probably all seen happen is when a sales person leaves a job to go to a new employer, some contact their past customers to try to move them over to their new employer. Yikes! This is a sticky subject.

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#3

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/25/2009 8:55 AM

This reminds me of an episode of The Office:

Dwight Schrute: I am not a bad person. When I left Staples, I took some of their leads with me but I never intended to use them. What did I intend to do with them? Who knows. Maybe keep them as a souvenir. Maybe use them.

(In an attempt to beat the computer's sales he calls one of the leads.)

Computer: Oh. I didn't realize we could use the leads we stole from Staples?

(Dwight hangs up.)

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#4
In reply to #3

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/25/2009 9:18 AM

What if nothing is "taken" ? No CD, no DVD, no thumb drive, no paper list. What if the sales person just uses what he/she remembers? Is it unethical to go after clients of their former employer? (And current competitor.)

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#5
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Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/25/2009 9:40 AM

I think you've made a fundamental error...
Sales person ... ethics ?
Puhleeeeese
Del

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#12
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Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/26/2009 6:54 AM

Del, you seems to be negatively biased... But I'm afraid you are right...

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#6

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/25/2009 12:37 PM

There is a difference between using something that you have created to help you in day to day life and another to have it land you a career/job. If you can't get a job by just being honest, then there is something wrong. If you have to steal a part of the company (no matter how much you contributed) to land a job with a competing company, you are doing something wrong. That is not to say that you can't mention previous accomplishments during an interview, but giving them software from another company is morally and ethically wrong.

Instead, using networking that you have gained through the company would be a better choice. Mentioning to coworkers in a professional way that if there is an opportunity elsewhere that they know about to relay the information. Using client lists to get ahead in a competing company is foul. If you are in a rough patch and get laid off, stealing company information should not be a morally acceptable action.

However, I can understand how basic instincts kick in and ANYTHING that might get you that coveted job over someone else may be snatched up (no matter the morality).

I suppose that leaves us with two questions:

  • Is it morally acceptable? No.
  • Is it being accepted? Yes.
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#7

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/25/2009 2:55 PM

In the event that I was hired by one of my current employer's competitors, I would most certainly take every piece of software that I wrote, and also anything I had access to that I think would help me in my future job.

There are situations when you need to think about only benefiting yourself, and one of those times is when dealing with your career. It's unlikely an entire corporation will be be affected by just one person taking their work with them, but very likely your career will be greatly affected by what action you take--bringing you work with you, or forgetting about it.

A majority of people are doing it according to that survey, so it unlikely that you will be punished for it (or it even be noticed). Like driving on the highway: the speed limit is 55MPH but if a majority of people are driving 70MPH, you probably won't ever have to pay a ticket for going 70MPH.

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#8

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/25/2009 11:13 PM

In these sorts of situations in my past, I asked if I could have things I had done. In one case the newspaper refused to give me my negatives saying they had paid for the film, that I was working for them, and that was that.< In another case I had written a short story that was published, and I was paid for. This was for a Gannet Publication.< I asked if I could have rights for either reprint, or say a movie. They said I could have those rights.< Truthfully I feel it is best to be overall informed.< If you signed a contract that said you had no rights to work you did in the employ of a company, well, you might not have rights to it.< Overall I feel it is a golden rule sort of thing. As well, for me, I may not have much in this world, but integrity is one thing I want to carry with me to the grave to keep my soul warm.

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#9
In reply to #8

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/26/2009 1:30 AM

As well, for me, I may not have much in this world, but integrity is one thing I want to carry with me to the grave to keep my soul warm.

Well said! GA

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#14
In reply to #9

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/26/2009 7:49 AM

I agree, so a GA to Transcendian.

However in those cases where an employee has a genuine greivance (maybe not one that can be chased through the legal avenues) one can understand and maybe condone the action.

And of course, as Del said, what is in an employees head (unless covered by patents etc) has to be basically "in the public domain" and hence just as much their property as the company's. I would personally be perfectly happy to use my knowledge that I've acquired from college, hobies etc to help me in my work, so would expect to be able to take additional knowledge away again as a sort of "payment" in exchange. I think this is usually called "experience".

Personal address books etc - now that is a thorny one, but why should an employee keep a personal address book at work? Again this is an accepted practice in most companies so gets wrapped up in the "experience" category - and don't forget that the same companies expect to recruit people with "experience" so that they can share in the knowledge that their competitors have.

DP

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#10

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/26/2009 4:05 AM

I believe it all boils down to ONE word: OWNERSHIP.

MOTIVE and CONSCIENCE. Comes into play when making a decision of whether to take something from the company with you.

OWNERSHIP: If you've used company's resources to create a "product", whether it is an idea, or a business lead, whatever, it belongs to the company. Otherwise, it belongs to you, even if you did it for the company, or for an official task / assignment.

MOTIVE: If you're taking stuff from the company with you upon leaving, and it doesn't belong to you (as defined above), that's plain and simple theft. If you're taking what belongs to *you*, with the intent of using it against the company (or compete with them) later, that is malicious and unethical. You might as well leave that as a gift to the company.

CONSCIENCE: Listen to what your heart says just before leaving the company's premises, with those things in your hands. Do you feel good and peaceful about this? If not, ask your boss'es permission. Otherwise, take only what belongs to you.

Just my 2 cents.

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#13

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/26/2009 6:58 AM

I always save my ideas, my first sketches. I don't "steal" whole developments but I try to keep in mind (or on CD/DVD) the clue ideas. Sometimes - if it does not hurt any law - I also save the final documents of the work of my own.

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#15

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/26/2009 7:53 AM

I suppose the question would be what obligation did one have to the company? Did you sign an employee agreement with a no compete, or patent right clause, or some such. I don't believe any one should ever breach their personal ethics period. Nor should they break any law.

Other than the legal or ethical implications the question could get really gray. This conversation has surely come up in the past but the one thing I have always noticed is that most of us never turn it around.

What has that company or person taken from the employee?

I think if surveys dug deeper you would find that most people who have taken property from their employer have little or no remorse. Not because they are bad people but because they believed they deserved to be treated better than they were. They feel they deserve to take something with them, right or wrong. The normal person will feel guilt, but it will not stop them from from doing what they have to in order to survey in a cold world.

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#16

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/26/2009 3:31 PM

Many, many good posts on the topic. I do appreciate the emphasis on honesty and ethics. It gives me hope for the human race, or at least for the engineers in the human race.

As to what is appropriate to take and what is appropriate to use, well... it is pretty hard to determine sometimes. Some examples have been given about products. These are tangibles and pretty obviously belong to the company. Now, what about training? If you have gone to any sort of training on the company dime, can you use it working for a competitor? If you go to work for a competitor (assuming that you are not violating a non-compete clause), how could you not use it? Knowledge becomes part of you.

I guess, the whole issue comes down to purpose and intent. As Sharkles said when she started the post, the things she has worked on are important to her. I agree. I have taken copies of documents that I have written --training courses, technical manuals and such, more as souvenirs than anything else. I have never used them as examples or sources in getting employment or in a project development. This would be ok. I have also taken copies of databases that I have created. Parts of these I have used in other jobs -- not for their content but for their structure. I have never exposed one company's content to another company. Techniques of constructing databases falls into the "knowledge" category I mentioned before. It is a gray area, I know. Did Company X profit because I was able to do my job better/faster because I learned how to do it while working for Company A? Is it fair that Company X benefited from the knowledge I gained while at Company A?

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#17
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Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/26/2009 3:51 PM

One company I worked for had agreements that you signed, stating that if you left the company within 6 months of your completion, that you would reimburse the cost of the training, etc.

The next company I worked for I overheard one of the admin people telling the CFO that she had noticed a certain trend, that employees tended to leave the company shortly after finishing the training.. which I hated to hear.. but if true, then a policy such as that above is a reasonable stop-gap for companies.

On the other hand, as a manager involved with training, I was pretty dedicated to ensuring that employees got training, and recieved certificates for in-house training. Lots of people said that this was worthless.. but others thought it fantastic. (a strangely similar situation to the GA question here on CR4)

A good CEO/president will set fair policies, and have a thorough understanding of human nature. After all, they are often human themselves, and have been through the mill, so the get the corners rounded off. Fair is that you don't steal secrets/patented information that is the core competency of that company, and use it to alter that companies position in the market place, at least for a period of 2 years. Fair is that they don't take something you made, and turn it into a million dollars or more, and not even give you a nod. One has to judge these scenarios with a balance scale in mind, so that the interests of each party are given equal weight.

Last company I worked for I suggested to the HR person that the interests of the individual employee were equal to the interests of the company. She basically looked at me as though I were a communist, as she was espousing the owners belief that employees should show more 'loyalty' (= bend over baby)

I don't think they (similar employers) understand mutual respect and equality. I think this comes from the employment laws being largely formed in the pre-union era of the industrial revolution, with horrific working conditions. It is a power-over state of mind. This guy wondered why he had a turnover rate approaching 75% per year. He would be better off just hiring each person as a contractor, and then maybe his expectations of employee loyalty would be closer to reality, as to human nature. (of course he has been robbed a bit blind, in his opinion, for corporate secrets)

Chris

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#18
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Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/26/2009 5:54 PM

The complaint that people leave shortly after training is a typical management/HR piece of dumbthink....
So they loose an employee and recruit someone new...Where do they think the guy got his training/experience? What goes around comes around...or maybe there is something wrong with pay or conditions...fix it...don't stop training.

It's like the old gits who complain that they are paying for student's education. Whenever someone said that to me as a student I always said no your not, I'll be paying for it from my taxes for the rest of my life.
It's these myopic views that lead to apprenticeships and training schemes being run down. The numbers of MDs and CEOs who leave having stuffed their pockets is vastly more significant in terms of a financial drain...oooh and don't start me on non executive directors...(jobs for the boys)

Now look what you've done ..all my fur is on end.
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Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/27/2009 8:57 AM

*pets* Easy there kitty, nice kitty...

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#20

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/28/2009 1:44 AM

Very interesting,

I look at the situation:

How did the company treat me?

What agreements did we come to when I was hired. (one company had no problem with my two pages of prior art listed when they had strict rules on the business having all right to developed intellectual property on company time.

Last but not least, there are lines I will not cross. One company had me investigate the hiring practices of another due to some bad rumors effecting them. I took the assignment with the stipulation I will attempt to get hired and if hired to a better position I answer to my new employers but the information you are requesting would be answered by my accepting the job. As it turned out the rumors were partially correct and I would not have taken the job because they flat lied. Armed with the truth the issue was handled appropriately.

The one time I didn't take any of my work with me I was in error. The company was sold, the work was discarded and other employees offered to copy it for me. I didn't know until later the company had OKed the copies. Thousands of hours of UNIX hacks that later I end up working for the company who wrote the programs we used.

As a owner of businesses as well as a worker for others much of this could be resolved at the time of hire.

Brad

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#21

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

02/28/2009 3:45 PM

A corporation is souless. It has no feelings, no emotions and deserves no loyalty. The people who make up that corporation however, may be hurt by your actions...whether it is selling proprietory secrets to the competition while you are working there, or after you are terminated...same difference. How badly do you want to hurt the people? (...if they threw you out on your ear two weeks before you could collect a pension, then get even, we will all help! If they had a big farewell party and wrote a glowing covering letter when your contract was finished, then hurting them would be reprehensible. If they just paid you off, and put your name on the list in case, say, another roofing job comes up, then fine.....take the skills and knowledge you picked up in the last few weeks/months/years, pack your tools in a milk crate and move on.)

Usually you cannot do anything which will hurt the corporation or the people in it very much if at all...we are usually pretty small self important cogs in a very big clockwork mechanism. As we used to say in the military "take your hand out of the bucket of water and see how big a hole it leaves. Thats how big a hole you will make when we YOU leave."

If anything you take cannot possibly hurt anybody, then they or the corporation have no cause to demand satisfaction. You cannot sue for damages if there not been any damages. If your actions cause injury, then they can go after you to recover those damages. They should be able to quantify those damages. Put your notes in your briefcase, and move on to the next job. In other words, Don't take the templates, take the knowledge on how to make those templates. That knowledge is your stock in trade, it is what you have to sell.

We live in a diffferent age now...where people move all over the country like NFL draft picks on term contracts. When people come to work for me, I hope that they have skills and training that will be useful to my company and justify me cutting their paycheques. Most every business has an edge over the competition in some way....and if they bring that edge with them, they are hired. I am not interested in the other company's templates...I can get those by buying one of the finished products, and doing direct measurements (reverse engineering). I am much more interested in how company X goes about creating that template in the first place. Like, what CAD programms do they use, if any, and how did they solve XYZ problem. In fact, if I were to interview a prospective employee and he brought the company's templates on to cement the deal, (to leverage this attractivness) I would probably just buy the templates and not hire him. After all, he would just take MINE and sell them to the next guy in line. I do not need to knowingly bring a viper to my bosom. This scenario actually happened to me, and I refused to purchase his templates, and he eventually refused to work for me. I think because he figured out that I was on to him.

My friend worked at getting a degree in entymology, and went to work at an apiary. Her task was to hybridize bees for specialty work. When her contract came up for renewal, she found a new line in it which stated that she would not be allowed to work in her field for 5 years upon dismissal for any reason. She refused to sign on the not unreasonable assumption that no surgeon would be required to sign such an agreement if she was to change hospitals...how would this be different? They quietly stroked the codicil through and initialed the change.

To use a writer as an example, suppose I owned a company which employes writers. A fresh young face comes in asking to be hired. I look at the stuff she has done for another newspaper, and decide if it is good enough for my newspaper. I will NOT simply use those columns in the portfolio...but I am interested in her research techniques, typing skills, style usage and grammar and possibly some general knowledge to get a good story which I will assign to her. I think everybody would agree that this would be a fair usage agreement, and nobody would feel damaged. She should not bring columns with editorial notes in them to me...those notes are not hers to show willy nilly. Her old newspaper would not make her sign a non-competition agreement, nor should they. I know that to re-publish a column without any substantive changes is a violation of the copyright law. Now lets suppose that same reporter came to me to publish a book of her columns over the last 5 years. Now I would have to get permission from her previous bosses to use her work since technically it does not belong to her if she was employed to do it. If she was freelance, and each item is sold on its merits, well then, she is the owner so no problem.

Just an opinion by a guy who has been in both sides of the H.R. desk.

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#22

Re: Stealing Data or Saving A Career?

03/02/2009 1:27 PM

And here's another twist. The company is going into bankruptcy. You are the Engineering Professional with the data and specs that already sold customers will need to maintain their products purchased prior. The liquidation will not result in a reorganization.

Is it theft of the estate if in fact no one will be paying for that information and all the office contents get thrown into a dumpster? What is its "highest and best use?" Filling a land fill? or helping customers?

I have data that was given to me by fellow professionals early in my career that is not available anywhere else. I have data that I generated at company's prior to bankruptcy.

I would reframe the question as "Saving data to protect the innocent bystanders."

There are a lot of companies very well served because a certain metallurgist kept his data throughout his career. With the blessing of his employers before and after.

"When they hired me, I brought a full bucket. If I keep giving knowledge away, I need to keep refilling that bucket.No trade secrets, but property data." Thats the deal I negotiate upfront with my employer.

Ultimately, that's really what experience is.

milo

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People say between two opposed opinions the truth lies in the middle. Not at all! Between them lies the problem, what is unseeable,eternally active life, contemplated in repose. Goethe
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