Is it possible to detect trade secrets disemminated through social media?

April 1, 2010

I read with interest the announcement of the coming Boston Events on social media and how to protect your products, brand and reputation.  (It is scheduled for April 7 at 8am.)

Protecting Your Brand, Reputation, and Secrets in the Age of Social Media

One of the key topics in this session involves preventing your trade secrets from being disclosed through social media.

This got me thinking — How could you identify one of your trade secrets that was distributed through social media?

In today’s global economy where products are often manufactured by a company’s supply chain partners, your ability to protect your trade secrets is absolutely critical to ensuring the continued success, and even existence, of your company.  Otherwise, the highly innovative product that you finally got to market after years of research and development could be cloned and mass-produced by a foreign competitor without the same R&D costs in 90 days (or less), effectively destroying your ability to generate the revenue you were expecting.

Obviously, you could manufacture the most proprietary elements yourself and provide all of your employees with phones, laptop computers, etc. so that you can legally search all of their outgoing emails, chats, text messages, etc. for relevant trade secret content.  But no company can afford this level of investment or can dedicate the staff necessary to perform all of this “policing”.  And few employees would tolerate the continual monitoring of their professional and personal communications that this approach implies.  After all, they are not working for the CIA or someplace similar where they expect this sort of monitoring as a condition of employment.

Or you could carefully restrict access to any trade secrets to only a select few employees.  However, this approach limits the ability of “average employees” to identify product or process improvements that have saved other companies millions of dollars in product development and manufacturing costs during recent years.

Thus, if you are going to actively detect a trade secret violation, you need to be able to deploy “detection” technology that can identify trade secrets being compromised and alert you accordingly.

But is this really possible?

Granted, searching text-based content for trade secret information on Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, etc. is fairly easy using Google and similar tools.   However, none of these tools are good enough to capture violations that don’t include relevant key words.

For example, you decide that the phrase “glass half full” is a trade secret and set up automatic filtering on all out-bound text content to detect any violations.  However, a message that talks about a “drinking container which has an equal amount of liquid and air” is, by definition “half full” but is unlikely to be identified by your automatic filtering tools.

The problem is even worse for videos.   Google, Brightcove, Wistia, and others have tools for identifying and tracking the usage of videos.  But all of the “searching” algorithms I have seen depend on the title or the meta tags applied to the video. I haven’t seen anything yet that could parse a video for a given text string or word — even though a number of companies have done research in this area.  Presumably the NSA has huge banks of super computers somewhere that can do some of this — but this is only a guess — and even if they have this capability, it doesn’t help the average company.

And since a potential violator is unlikely to post a new YouTube video with a name or tag that says “trade secrets of company xyz”, this seems like an unreliable approach to me also.

So the question is — Is it truly possible to detect trade secrets being disseminated through social media?   Or are we forced to rely solely on the trust worthiness of our employees,  colleagues, and business partners?

And how can we trust our supply chain members, when we often do not even know which companies are providing key elements to our key supply chain members?

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