The COVID-19 crisis has presented an array of novel issues for companies, including new and unexpected cybersecurity threats. In addition to the now well-known security limitations of video platforms such as Zoom, we are seeing cyber-attacks in the form of COVID-19 related phishing attempts and ransomware attacks. In at least some of these attempted hacks, cybercriminals are hoping to steal trade secrets.

  • Cybercriminals are taking advantage of the novel at-home working environment and the increased fear and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic to launch malware and phishing attacks related to COVID-19.
  • Employees may be more likely to click a link or open an attachment, even though they would never consider doing so in a normal situation at work.
  • Therefore, malware may pose more of a danger than it did when employees primarily accessed their email over their employers’ traditionally more protected systems.
  • Companies should consider putting employees on notice about the COVID-19 related phishing attempts and provide examples of common scams.


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Crowell & Moring invites you to attend the fifth installment of our Trade Secrets Webinar Series – The Revolving Door of Autonomous Vehicle Talent: Managing Employee Access to Trade Secrets & Facilitating Robust Investigation of Safety Issues, taking place on Tuesday, May 12th at 02:00 pm (EDT).

Autonomous Vehicle (“AV”) developers have been aggressively working to safeguard their vital design documents and data, and have increasingly relied on lawsuits to protect their proprietary information and to prevent such information from reaching their competitors as human talent continues to revolve through the AV industry. Given the increasing popularity of self-driving technology, AV developers should remain vigilant in protecting the trade secrets governing their autonomous vehicle programs and should be sure to implement sound policies for retrieving data upon employee departure.

Join Crowell & Moring attorneys Cheryl Falvey, Rukiya Mohamed, and Paul Mathis for a live discussion on trade secret and liability issues unique to AV developers as well as best practices.

To register, please click here.
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The COVID-19 pandemic is shining a new light on the risk of trade secret theft to businesses worldwide from greater employee mobility associated with rising unemployment and a looming recession, cyberattacks by opportunistic hackers, and a growing remote workforce with technological threats from increased use of smart devices that may leave little to no data trail.

Companies should not only consider what to do to safeguard their trade secrets now, as explored in our earlier post on Trade Secret Protection During the COVID-19 Pandemic, but how best to create and communicate the plan for responding to any discovery of trade secret misappropriation.
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Are non-competes still enforceable in middle of the unprecedented economic disruption caused by COVID-19? Many employers have reacted to the business impact of COVID-19 by downsizing and laying off employees, some of whom signed non-compete agreements or restrictive covenants to protect the employer’s legitimate business interests, including its trade secrets and confidential information. Those same businesses now are left wondering whether those non-compete agreements are enforceable in the wake of massive unemployment triggered by the pandemic.

The answer to this question is complex, and depends on state law, public policy, and the terms of the specific agreements. Each state scrutinizes non-competes and restrictive covenants differently and, therefore, the answer may be different depending on where the business and employee are located or the agreement’s choice of law provision.
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As autonomous vehicles quickly move farther towards the mainstream, the underlying technology has become increasingly more valuable and has led to an uptick in the theft of autonomous vehicle (“AV”) trade secrets. Indeed, criminal prosecutions of former employees for trade secret theft have been on the rise, especially in the autonomous vehicle segment. Two recent cases underscore the enforcement agencies’ efforts to stem the rise in trade secret theft in the AV segment. Anthony Scott Levandowski was a former executive at both Uber and Google. He departed Google and created a new company named Ottomotto, LLC that was later purchased by Uber. Levandowski pled guilty to theft of trade secrets from Google, admitting that he downloaded approximately 14,000 files from an internal, password-protected Google server to his personal laptop, including a key internal tracking document from Google that detailed the status of its self-driving car program. Levandowki faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, and $250,000 fine plus restitution.
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A recent decision by the Federal District Court for the Eastern District of New York reinforces that owners of trade secret computer programs should carefully approach copyright registration in order to maintain both copyright and trade secret protection. This includes being conscious of copyright regulations allowing the partial and redacted registration of computer code with the Copyright Office.

In a recent manifestation of this principle, Capricorn Management Systems accused GEICO of misappropriating Capricorn’s trade secret source code for medical billing software. Last week, the court granted GEICO’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the code was not entitled to trade secret protection, in part because it was registered, unredacted, with the U.S. Copyright Office, and was therefore publicly available.
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Companies and other organizations increasingly must face serious and complex threats to their business and infrastructure.  Whether the threat is trade secret theft, rogue insiders, cybercrime adversaries, aggressive competitors, or misconduct by business and supply chain partners, companies should remain constantly vigilant and defense ready. Adversaries, including especially cybercriminals operating exclusively in the digital domain, are often highly motivated, sophisticated, resourced, and innovative. The opaque, pervasive, and global nature of modern digital networked environments presents opportunities for criminals. The sophistication and relentless creativity of these bad actors pose significant challenges to companies and law enforcement agencies in being able to detect, assess, mitigate, attribute, and deter these threats. Because available tools and real-world practices to address these threats often outpace the law, companies are called upon to develop their own comprehensive approaches to investigate and remediate these forms of risk. In doing so, companies must be willing to assume a certain level of risk to effectively investigate and obtain sufficient insight to counter the problems.
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For the first time, a United States federal court has held that a civil action for private damages under the Defend Trade Secrets Act (“DTSA”) can arise from acts of misappropriation that occur completely outside the United States – as long as they have a nexus with some activities within the U.S. In Motorola Sols., Inc. v. Hytera Commc’ns Corp., Ltd., No. 1:17-cv-1973 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 6, 2020) (an earlier decision in this case was previously discussed on this blog here), Motorola alleged that Hytera Communications, a Chinese company, hired away three engineers who then took with them Motorola trade secrets, including thousands of Motorola’s confidential technical documents containing millions of lines of source code and other highly confidential information.

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The United States has long struggled with intellectual property (IP) theft facilitated or condoned by the Chinese government. Just in the past year, a CNBC CFO survey reports that one in five North American corporations have had their IP stolen by China, and just below one-third of CFOs of North American-based companies on the CNBC Global CFO Council state that Chinese firms have stolen from them during the last decade. This IP theft is very costly. In fact, some sources estimate that the annual cost that international IP theft imposes on the United States exceeds $225 billion in counterfeit goods and could be as elevated as $600 billion.

Chinese entities have been alleged to steal IP from foreign companies using methods such as trading with or forming joint ventures with the companies and then gaining access to their sensitive or proprietary information. Businesses have also willingly allowed Chinese partners to access this information in exchange for accessing China’s immense market. Some examples of alleged Chinese IP theft include a conspiracy to hack into U.S. defense contractors’ computer networks to steal sensitive military data and the fact that the Chinese military has infrastructure that can look suspiciously similar to that used by the United States. In the context of urging NATO allies to ban Chinese 5G equipment, Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned at the Department of Homeland Security’s National Cybersecurity Summit last September that China is committing “the greatest intellectual property theft in human history.”
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Chinese national and materials scientist Hongjin Tan has pled guilty to stealing from his former employer Phillips 66 (“Phillips”) more than $1 billion in trade secrets related to next generation battery technology.

DOJ announced Tan’s guilty plea this week which revealed that he copied substantial research and development files that he knew contained protected company