Friday, October 4, 2013

What happens if the map leaves the boat, Jonesy?

Nowadays, Jonesy's map would have been on an iPad.
A passage from the late* Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October between the sonar technician Jonesy and Captain Bart Mancuso (emphasis mine) on a handmade map of Soviet submarine courses:
"What's the map?"  
"Skipper, I know it's against the rules an' all, but I keep this as a personal record of the tracks the bad guys use. It doesn't leave the boat, sir, honest. I may be a little off, but all this translated to a course of about two-two-zero and a speed of ten knots. And *that* aims him right at the entrance of Route One. Okay?" 
When I left the Blue Pill Factory, I took a box of my notes and printed documents, mostly related to my postdoctoral project (which was always designed to be published.) If my VP had paged through the box of papers that I walked out the door with, I wonder if he would have been upset. Honestly, I don't think so. I'm a fairly scruplous rule follower when it comes to that sort of thing.

Of course, modern technology being what it is, it doesn't take a box of papers anymore. A few thumb drives will hold all the notebook pages, customer reports and other valuable material that former employers would throw an absolute rug-biting fit over other people even having the possibility of seeing. It surprises me when I hear about cases where people have electronic documents and experimental details from former employers. I'd think it would open their new employers to a lot of lawsuit vulnerability.

How can employers stop it? I don't think they can. One supposes that it is only the threat of future legal action that stops employees from electronically cleaning out their computers and sticking all the data in their pockets. That, and the knowledge that anything ever done on a computer, given enough time and resources, can be tracked.

*Sad news. 

8 comments:

  1. I once worked at a place where everyday at 4:30, the office supply cabinet was locked so that no one could steal the Post-It notes, pens, paper clips, etc after the admin had gone home. Company secrets could walk right out the front door, but no-sir-ee, there were no thefts of Post-It notes.

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  2. I'd worry more about the "USS Dallas" hat - someone who doesn't know what the person does probably won't understand the map, but knowing who is on a particular sub (and, based on the name, whether it's a boomer or an attack sub) would probably be useful knowledge for someone.

    If you actually succeed at getting people to care about what they do, it's hard for them to turn it off easily, and perhaps hard to separate it from stuff that isn't work (or even from related interests). Compartmentalization is not an easy skill, or even one that people always want to have.

    Some had a quote that "employees are the assets that go home at 5" - since they are now mostly expendable assets, people are probably going to treat data as someone expendable would treat it. I'm sure Microsoft and other companies and employers are looking for ways to control access to documents, but good security is likely to impede actual work, and to drive employees to circumvent it, and the easy solution requires loyalty and trust, which companies aren't willing to give.

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  3. Ask Dupont about the problems they have had with IP theft....

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  4. I'd think it would open their new employers to a lot of lawsuit vulnerability.

    It absolutely does. Any company that would actively allow an employee to use knowledge or information from a previous company is putting themselves at serious risk.

    A person left here, leaving behind old folders, etc, one of which was material from his previous company. They were contacted, explaining what was found and that the person was not working on in that particular area. Another person used a former company's proprietary structural biology information in an in silico model. He was fired, his former company notified what happened and people in that area were deposed by lawyers about what interactions they had with this individual. It's just not worth it.

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  5. People are as loyal to the employer as their employer is loyal to them. If the company hires good, hard working, intelligent people, and then treats them as such, there are far fewer problems, IP and otherwise. It the company treats employees as nothing more than "FTEs" then the company deserves whatever happens...you reap what you sow. And those middle managers who pinch pennies have no vision, and should be fired - before more damage occurs.

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    1. Don't confuse loyalty with legal obligation. You sign a confidentiality agreement when you sign on. They don't promise to employ you forever.

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  6. Some time ago, I had quite an experience, being - in short succession - 1) subpoenaed for a deposition in a patent infringement lawsuit between a blue pill factory and a generic drug manufacturer (who was trying to invalidate a key patent on a drug selling more than a billion a year). A major requirement of the subpoena was to turn over all related notes and documents in my possession. Notes which I should not have possessed. 2) Being interviewed by FBI, after a foreign chemist whom I was in touch with through e-mail correspondence got fired and accused by his employer (a mid-sized US-based CRO) of industrial espionage, namely of stealing proprietary synthetic procedures and forwarding them to a competitor abroad. (The chemist was eventually cleared of all the industrial espionage charges - despite the best efforts of his ex-employer to put him in jail by grossly exaggerating the I.P. damage done to the company, both in court and in the press statements - it was in C&EN about four times. It ended up well for him - he did community service, paid a fine and left US after two years of court battle - but imagine my situation. There was this fool who mishandled a conflict of interest situation and exceeded authorization when negotiating a sub-contract work for his employer, then they fired him and tried to make an example of him - in their little vendetta. I.P. theft and industrial espionage are federal offenses carrying up to 10 years in prison). My little entanglement in all this mess made me go over every procedure in OrgPrepDaily and every scrap of chemistry notes in my possession, worrying greatly about their possible implications - in case somebody should try to go after me in court - because innocuous e-mails and records could be construed as a some sort of conspiracy. Now imagine someone is under pressure to cut a plea deal preferably by pointing out and drowning others; suddenly you become "a mastermind of an industrial spying ring" when feds visit your home with a search warrant and find xeroxed notebook pages from your previous job...

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    1. Wow. I guess I have some house-cleaning to do.

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