FBI Offers Tips to Help Companies Protect Against Theft of Trade Secrets

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Often talked about in private conversations and behind closed doors but kept out of the spotlight is the issue of economic espionage — the second largest priority for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, more commonly known as the FBI.

However, the whispers surrounding this issue are being heard as was witnessed by those in attendance at the American Seed Trade Association’s 2015 Vegetable & Flower Seed Conference where the FBI had a booth and an agent spoke briefly about the subject during the general session.

In discussing some of the highlights of the conference, Jennifer Crouse, ASTA director of meetings and services, notes that the FBI approached the association about their efforts in battling economic espionage.

“They’re here at their request and that further positions us [ASTA] as an authority in the industry,” Crouse says.

Visitors in the trading area had the opportunity to talk with FBI agent Robert Spelbrink who explained that economic espionage and trade secret theft against U.S. agricultural and biotechnology companies and institutes are on the rise.

Spelbrink says the FBI is working to foster partnerships with businesses, academia, and think tanks for better intelligence. “There are 56 FBI field offices throughout the country and there should be at least on strategic partnership coordinator in each office,” he says, noting that these coordinators can provide a vulnerability self-assessment tool, threat awareness briefings, brochures and other tools to assist companies. “Investigators cannot act if they are not aware of the problem.”

Stolen trade secrets could lead to lost revenue, lost employment, a damaged reputation, a decrease in investment for research and development and the interruption of production.

According to a handout distributed by the FBI, companies at risk of economic espionage or theft of trade secrets have: a technological edge and employees with access to it; a process to manufacture an item at a lower cost than the competition; and those that have been negotiating with another company, especially foreign-based.

To help combat economic espionage, the FBI has a list of best management practices to help protecting intellectual property. Spelbrink says company leadership should:

  1. Assess the company’s information security vulnerabilities and fix or mitigate the risks associated with those vulnerabilities.
  2. Clearly identify and safeguard critical information or intellectual property and mark it accordingly.
  3. Not store proprietary information vital to the company on any device that connects to the Internet.
  4. Use up-to-date software security tools. Many firewalls stop incoming threats but do not restrict outbound data. Competitive intelligence hackers try to retrieve data stored on the network.
  5. Educate employees on spear phishing email tactics. Establish protocols for reporting and quarantining suspicious emails.
  6. Ensure employees are aware of and trained to avoid unintended disclosures.
  7. Remind employees of security policies on a regular basis through active training and seminars. Use signs and computer banners to reinforce security policies.
  8. Document employee education an all other measures you take to protect your intellectual property.
  9. Ensure human resource policies that specifically enhance security and company policies are in place. Create clear incentives for adhering to company security policies.

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