The federal government is very strict on the prosecution of white-collar criminal cases – including computer hacking. In 2012 alone, the Department of Justice dismantled more than 400 businesses and individuals courts found guilty of hacking and other such acts. To say that executives have found themselves increasingly in the bull’s-eye of investigators for alleged hacking is an understatement. If caught, executives face time in prison and substantial fines. In one instance, a North Texas CEO was sentenced to more than five years in prison and three years of supervised release after he was convicted of hacking into his former company’s computer system.
The main concern of hacking is the theft of intellectual property, which federal prosecutors view as the lifeblood of America’s competitive advantage. As President Barack Obama once said, “We are going to aggressively protect our intellectual property. Our single greatest asset is the innovation and the ingenuity and creativity of the American people. It is essential to our prosperity and it will only become more so in this century.” Any executive who has access to his or her company’s competitive secrets must be on guard against federal hacking charges, and must know what to do if the Department of Justice comes knocking on their door. What’s more, a civil computer hacking case can also become a federal criminal case if prosecutors decide to press charges.
Generally speaking, in Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code, the federal government defines computer hacking as any unauthorized access – or the purposeful transmission of a malicious virus – to a business computer. One doesn’t have to be a hardcore hacker to be prosecuted under the federal hacking statutes. The simple act of accessing company data or computers to obtain information or to destroy computer records without company authorization constitutes hacking.
Remember that when you leave an employer, executives will likely cast a wary eye to any signs that you might have taken company secrets with you. Often, shortly after executives and high-level employees announce they’re moving on, it’s frequently assumed that they will be taking jobs at competing industries. They’re given minimal time to collect their possessions and to leave the premises. Company passwords are changed, corporate computers are examined for traces of unauthorized downloads. These measures are meant to prevent you from stealing or hacking your former employers’ competitive secrets.
Consider that while you’re still employed by your company, you can still be accused of hacking your company’s computer system and giving away trade secrets for your own advantage. If your company starts to hemorrhage business, or if someone comes across information that indicates you’re accessing and sharing company secrets without authorization, you might be heading toward a courtroom soon.
Realize that the company-issued portable devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops will likely be confiscated shortly after you announce your impending departure. Many companies will even hire experts to examine those devices, as well as your personal computer, for evidence that you’ve taken – or are still taking – company data that could place your former employer at a competitive disadvantage.
Consider that even though you’ve been gone from your employer for a number of months or years, your former co-workers and successors could become suspicious if they notice a competitor is suddenly taking control of the marketplace with market intelligence. Executives will gladly look for scapegoats or suspects to blame for a downturn in business. That scapegoat could easily be you if they can point to evidence of unauthorized access to company secrets.
Immediately hire a lawyer who has extensive experience in defending individuals against allegations of computer hacking, in both civil and criminal courts, if you’re confronted with such charges. Beyond being fined large sums of money and facing years of imprisonment, hacking charges can tarnish an otherwise stellar business career and can ruin your professional reputation. Don’t take such allegations lightly.
Resist the urge to take any proprietary information from your workplace when you depart. Though you might not consider the information “sensitive,” don’t give your former employer and your successors ammunition to allege that you’ve been hacking their company’s market intelligence.
Don’t try to resolve allegations of hacking on your own. While many successful executives are averse to resolving disputes in court, the consequences can be dire for an individual who only wanted to cooperate with his or her former employer. Your former or current employer won’t hesitate in using every legal means available to press its case against you. Defend yourself accordingly.
Don’t think that just because you had/have cordial relationships with the colleagues who are now your accusers, computer hacking allegations can be explained away as a series of minor misunderstandings. By their very nature, allegations of computer hacking can’t be easily cast aside with a light-hearted retort or a slap on the back. Time to call in reinforcements.
Don’t make promises to prospective employers or peers that you have an inside track on knowing what’s going on at your current/former employer and how it does business. Any attempts on your part to inflate your value with such talk will likely backfire – perhaps in court.
Don’t think you can outfox forensic investigators. If there was any unauthorized access of company data, they will most likely find out. If you were or are engaged in such acts, tell your defense counsel up front. Your legal defense will be more effective if it has all the relevant facts from the start.
One doesn’t have to be a hardcore hacker to be prosecuted under the federal hacking statutes. The simple act of accessing company data or computers to obtain information or to destroy computer records without company authorization constitutes hacking. Anyone with current or past access to a company’s market intelligence or intellectual property can be accused of hacking. The increasingly competitive marketplace -- both foreign and domestic -- has spurred more criminal hacking charges and related civil lawsuits. Because of their high profiles and their positions within their companies, executives are often entrusted with a great deal of their company’s sensitive competitive information. They’re also among the first to fall under suspicion of computer hacking. Executives who try to go it alone or think they can mollify their accusers with a slap on the back are in for a rude awakening. A former or current employer won’t hesitate in using every legal means available to press its case. The accused should defend themselves accordingly.
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