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Study finds data theft among ex-employees

Washingtonpost.Com

WASHINGTON – Many people who are either laid off from their job or simply moving to another opportunity often secretly take proprietary data from their employer on their way out the door, a new study found.

Nearly 60 percent of employees who quit a job or are asked to leave are stealing company data, according to report by the Ponemon Institute, a Tucson, Ariz., research group. The survey was based on interviews with 945 adults who were laid off, fired or changed jobs in the last year.

Seventy-nine percent of those who admitted to taking data said they did so despite knowing that their former employer did not permit them to take internal company information.

Sixty-five percent of those who took data from their former employer grabbed e-mail lists. The next most frequently stolen data included non-financial business information (45 percent), customer contact lists (39 percent), employee records (35 percent) and financial information (16 percent).

The institute’s founder, Larry Ponemon, said several factors may contribute to the data theft, including a lack of employee loyalty and telecommuting.

“What’s interesting is more and more people seem to feel entitled to information they create on the job, and an increase in mobility in the work force means many employees don’t have a lasting relationship with their employers,” Ponemon said. “Also, as you have more employees working from remote locations and on home computers, the concept of who really controls this data isn’t often clear to people.”

Roughly 67 percent of those who acknowledged taking company data from their old employer said they did so in order to leverage a new job. But Gavin Manes, chief executive of Avansic, a digital forensics company that often is hired to investigate employee data theft, said individuals who hand confidential data over to a new employer or competitor are putting themselves – as well as their former and prospective employers – at grave legal risk.

“Some people who do this think they’re helping their next employer, but in reality they are probably punishing them, because there is constant litigation on this,” Manes said. “The new employer may get secret information, but that company the person just left might very well sue the new employer.”

In an era when more employees are storing their business and customer contacts online at services like LinkedIn.com, some employees may not believe they are doing anything wrong when they take customer lists and other internal company data when they move on to a new job.

But Jon Groetzinger, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University Law School in Cleveland, said most companies explicitly bar employees from taking internal or proprietary data in contracts that employees sign as a condition of their hiring. What’s more, employees who take such data when they leave a job may also violate state and federal laws.

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