The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many businesses to adopt new or alternative working practices, particularly having employees work from home. Many employees are now discussing and using confidential business know-how outside of the workplace for the first time, and often via new and unfamiliar systems. Inevitably, malicious actors have taken and will take advantage of this in order to misappropriate such information. For these reasons, businesses should familiarise themselves with the law on trade secrets. Taking steps to protect such commercially sensitive information is not just a security concern; it is a prerequisite to availing of certain legal protections.
What is a Trade Secret?
The European Union (Protection of Trade Secrets) Regulations 2018 (the “Trade Secrets Regulations”) provide that a trade secret is any information which:
- is secret in the sense that it is not generally known among, or readily accessible to, persons within the circles that normally deal with the information in question;
- has commercial value because it is secret; and
- has been subject to reasonable steps under the circumstances, by the person lawfully in control of the information, to keep it secret.
Benefits and Protections Attaching to Trade Secrets
It is unlawful for a person to acquire a trade secret without the consent of the trade secret holder if the person acquires it by:
“unauthorised access to or appropriation of any documents, objects, materials, substances or electronic files, lawfully under the control of the trade secret holder… or any other conduct which, under the circumstances, is considered contrary to honest commercial practices.”
However, a person can lawfully acquire such information, such as by their own independent discovery or creation or otherwise “in conformity with honest commercial practices.”
The Trade Secrets Regulations provide for a range of remedies if a trade secret is found to have been acquired, disclosed or used unlawfully. These can include orders to preserve confidentiality, orders not to make use of information which has been deemed to be a trade secret, corrective measures such as the recall or destruction of infringing goods, and damages.
What “Reasonable Steps” should a Business Take?
It will stand to a business if it can demonstrate in court proceedings that it took “reasonable steps” to protect the commercially sensitive information, according its trade secret status, if it finds itself in a situation where someone has taken advantage of the current disruption to make use of such information. In the current circumstances, such “reasonable steps” could include:
- preventing remote access to any information which is particularly sensitive;
- ensuring that employees only communicate on work-related matters via agreed, secure platforms (for more on this please see our article on data protection issues when video conferencing);
- prohibiting any use or downloading of unauthorised programs or applications on work devices;
- notifying employees to be on alert for phishing messages and other scams (especially those related to the coronavirus); and
- requiring employees to make all necessary security updates on their work devices.
A business which has taken these or similar steps to protect its information will be in a much stronger position to prove that the information which has been compromised is a trade secret.
What if a Trade Secret is Compromised?
Businesses should also consider steps to prepare for a situation in which a trade secret or other commercially sensitive information is compromised, such as:
- ensuring the ability to remotely wipe any lost or stolen devices containing such information;
- keeping track of all information that is under password protection and being ready to change these passwords; and
- having a reporting process in place so that employees know who they should notify.
Steps such as these are advisable so that a business can mitigate the consequences if its trade secrets or other commercially sensitive information is compromised.
Businesses should carefully consider implementing these and other steps to protect trade secrets by means of a new policy. This will ensure a coordinated approach to protecting commercially sensitive information across the business. It may also prove useful in asserting that such information was a trade secret meriting the protections and remedies that come with such status if the information is compromised.
Contributed by Andrew Desmond