ESPN reported on October 30 that several college basketball referees were disciplined for accessing unauthorized information on a website. According to sources of ESPN, login information to the officiating site –BlueZebraSports.com –was compromised and passed on to several referees. The referees gained the ability to access compensation of other officials as well as game scheduling information. This information was considered confidential.
In response to the breach, BlueZebra Sports notified its clients (many of the Division 1 college basketball conferences) by letter that two clients abused their access as administrators on their own web sites and “manipulated our system in a malicious manner to gain access to the sites of coordinators for whom they worked.”
One of the breaching referees was Bo Boroski, a prominent Big Ten official. Boroski officiated last year’s NCAA tournament and also officiated the Big Ten tournament semifinals for the past two years. Boroski allegedly accessed his own game assignments. It has been reported that Boroski will not work any Big Ten games this year.
This type of story may be atypical in the world of officiating, but it is far from unusual in the business world. Trade secret theft costs companies billions of dollars in losses each year and it is an increasing problem. The risk of misappropriation has been heightened by technological advancements that make it easier for employees and external hackers to steal company data. The mobility of the workforce and increased turnover of employees who work in sensitive positions also create risks. For example, when employees leave their employer to join a competitor, they frequently take sensitive information with them that they think may give them a competitive advantage in their new job. This information can include customer lists, pricing information, referral source databases, marketing materials, inventions and other types of competitive and proprietary data.
To protect their businesses, employers of all sizes and in all industries should be proactive in protecting trade secrets and confidential information. Even a single incident of trade secret theft can have a devastating impact on a business. Here are a few measures employers should undertake to safeguard their information:
- Require new and existing employees to sign non-disclosure covenants.
- Identify and inventory the company’s trade secrets.
- Identify current measures to secure trade secrets and evaluate the effectiveness of these measures.
- Segregate trade secrets to be treated differently than other non-sensitive information.
- Limit access to databases, documents or devices containing sensitive information through the use of passwords.
- Use employee monitoring software to record and block computer activities.
- Track who accesses information.
- Develop, disseminate and train employees on policies concerning the use of company-issued computers and electronic devices.
- Label sensitive documents as “confidential” or “secret”.
- Discard and shred printed copies of sensitive documents after use.
- Prohibit employees from taking confidential information home with them.
- Conduct exit interviews and discuss with departing employees whether they have returned all company property.
- Consult promptly with counsel when you are suspicious an employee has taken company information.
The BlueZebra Sports case shows, that when given the chance, employees will access information of interest to them, even if they are not authorized to do so. Given the rise in trade secret theft and the fact that technology makes it more challenging to prevent employee theft, it is more important than ever for employers to be proactive in protecting their sensitive information.
As in all sports, the key to obtaining success in this area is to develop a sound game plan and then execute it. Having a “trade secrets” game plan will help prevent your company from being the victim of trade secret theft. And if theft does occur, despite your best efforts, the plan will help your company persuade the court to restrict the offending employee’s use of the information and keep him or her on the sideline.