FBI gets serious about state-sponsored trade secret theft

If you’re under the impression that intellectual property is a rather…dry area, the FBI’s most recent public-relations initiative might change your mind.

The FBI believes that state-sponsored theft of trade secrets from American companies has gotten so out of control that it has become a national security concern; when jobs are as scarce as they are these days, we risk economic instability by losing even more jobs when companies have their secrets stolen.

That’s why the FBI is taking out billboards across the country alerting viewers to a website where they can find some telltale signs that a co-worker might be stealing their employer’s trade secrets. (The campaign hasn’t started just yet, so we don’t yet know whether any of these billboards will appear in Florida.)

According to the FBI, employees who stole their employer’s trade secrets and sold them to foreign companies caused American businesses to lose $13 billion last year. One industrial spy, for example, sold a chemical formula to a South Korean company. The formula was so valuable that the parent company of the American business, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, had to buy out the South Korean company that bought the secret just to stay in business.

Industrial spies are nothing new in certain fields, like defense contracting, but they have recently gone after companies that aren’t as diligent about guarding their secret information, like software developers.

If the FBI is concerned about the hijacking of American trade secrets, then it’s pretty clear intellectual property concerns are a big deal indeed.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, “FBI’s New Campaign Targets Corporate Espionage,” Evan Perez, May 11, 2012