August 01, 2015
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Trade Secret Misappropriation: When An Insider Takes Your Trade Secrets With Them
While companies are often focused on outsider risks such as breach of their systems through a stolen laptop or hacking, often the biggest risk is from insiders themselves. Such problems of access management with existing employees, independent contractors and other persons are as much a threat to proprietary information as threats from outside sources.
In any industry dominated by two main players there will be intense competition for an advantage. Advanced Micro Devices and Nvida dominate the graphics card market. They put out competing models of graphics cards at similar price points. When played by the rules, such competition is beneficial for both the industry and consumers.
AMD has sued four former employees for allegedly taking "sensitive" documents when they left to work for Nvidia. In its complaint, filed in the 1st Circuit District Court of Massachusetts, AMD claims this is "an extraordinary case of trade secret transfer/misappropriation and strategic employee solicitation." Allegedly, forensically recovered data show that when the AMD employees left in July of 2012 they transferred thousands of files to external hard drives that they then took with them. Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. v. Feldstein et al, No. 4:2013cv40007 (1st Cir. 2013).
On January 14, 2013 the District Court of Massachusetts granted AMD's ex-parte temporary restraining order finding AMD would suffer immediate and irreparable injury if the Court did not issue the TRO. The TRO required the AMD employees to immediately provide their computers and storage devices for forensic evaluation and to refrain from using or disclosing any AMD confidential information.
The employees did not have a non-compete contract. Instead the complaint is centered on an allegation of misappropriation of trade secrets. While both AMD and Nvidia are extremely competitive in the consumer discrete gpu market involving PC gaming enthusiasts, there are rumors that AMD managed to secure their hardware to be placed in both forthcoming next-generation consoles, Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox 720. AMD's TRO and ultimate goal of the suit may therefore be to preclude any of their proprietary technology from being used by its former employees to assist Nvidia in the future.
The law does protect companies and individuals such as AMD from having their trade secrets misappropriated. The AMD case has only recently been filed and therefore it is unclear what the response from the employees will be. What is clear is how fast AMD was able to move to deal with such a potential insider threat. Companies need to be aware of who has access to what data and for how long. Therefore, in the event of a breach, whether internal or external, companies can move quickly to isolate and identify the breach and take steps such as litigation to ensure their proprietary information is protected.