Many companies across the globe are sending workers home as part of a broader attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. This situation is clearly changing working patterns as companies are forced to embrace remote working.
And it is realistic to assume that shifting to the ‘home office’ will become the new normal for many of us for a while, given the recent announcement by the World Health Organization that the coronavirus has officially reached ‘pandemic’ status.
However, this shift to the home office may have implications for the trade secrets of the company.
Firstly, there is a big temptation for people to start loading ‘stuff’ onto USB sticks, uploading ‘stuff’ to the cloud and/or emailing ‘stuff’ to home email addresses. Much of this ‘stuff’ may be valuable business confidential information, i.e. trade secrets. Are companies happy to have their trade secrets distributed like this?
Secondly, although many companies will no doubt remind their employees to use their work computers and work network, and not home devices when working from home, a significant percentage of workers will definitely start to use their home computers for business activities. These home computers may not have the same level of IT protection in place when compared to their work computer controlled and managed by the IT department. I appreciate that we have all been advised to wash our hands to improve our hygiene. However, workers may not have the same level of IT hygiene when it comes to their home computer in contrast to their work computer. IT hygiene here refers to best practices and other activities that computer system administrators and users can undertake to improve their cyber-security while engaging in common online activities, such as web browsing, emailing, etc.
Thirdly, employees will probably not be thinking much about trade secret access and access controls and/or reasonable protection measures when communicating with their co-workers remotely and possibly sharing valuable confidential business information (i.e. trade secrets) with one another.
I am not arguing that people should not work from home as a result of this coronavirus pandemic. However, companies need to be aware of the increased risk to their trade secrets as a result and take some actions to mitigate these risks.
Last but not least, it is most likely that the coronavirus pandemic will lead to economic downturn. As a result, some companies may be forced to downsize and reduce employee headcount. Research has shown that when companies have staff turnover, some of their trade secrets walk out the door.
Of course, if the company does not have the basics already in place – employee education on trade secrets; a fit for purpose trade secret policy; a robust process for handling such assets; a system to log and track these assets; a range of administrative, legal and protection mechanisms; as well as some trade secret governance in place – then it may find that managing its trade secrets in these strange and extraordinary times is extremely challenging.
Donal O’Connell, IPEG consultant and Trade Secret Expert