Protecting IP Amidst The Pandemic
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Protecting IP Amidst The Pandemic

Kim Jessum, Chief IP Counsel U.S., Associate General Counsel & Secretary, Heraeus
Kim Jessum, Chief IP Counsel U.S., Associate General Counsel & Secretary, Heraeus

Kim Jessum, Chief IP Counsel U.S., Associate General Counsel & Secretary, Heraeus

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and impacted every type of business. Companies of every industry and every size have had to change their business model and critical business processes to adapt to these new challenges.

Intellectual property has not been immune to the pandemic’s impact. In a way, IP has become more vulnerable. As a health precaution, many companies have shifted a large percentage of their employees to work at home. While remote work is safer from a health standpoint, it makes the organization’s intellectual property, sensitive company information, and trade secrets less secure and more vulnerable.

Protecting IP is challenging under normal circumstances; with more employees working at home and using home networks that may or may not be secure, the pandemic has opened a pandora’s box of new threats. This should not just concern CIOs, but leaders throughout the C-Suite.

While companies had traditionally offered work-from-home options to some employees, the sheer volume of employees working from home has expanded exponentially. It has forced IT departments to scramble to ensure adequate broadband to support the company’s virtual platform. It has also multiplied the risk that IP, easily available on remote laptops, could be vulnerable.

 While remote work is safer from a health standpoint, it makes the organization’s intellectual property, sensitive company information, and trade secrets less secure and more vulnerable 

Public health officials have not offered specific timelines when things might return to “normal.” Many companies noticed minimal disruption with remote working and this “new normal” may result in reducing their physical real estate footprint. The virus may go away someday in the near future, but the challenge of protecting IP in this new work approach will not disappear. Given this new scenario, here are some essential tips companies should consider:

Employee Awareness

Every organization should regularly educate and train employees about intellectual property and protecting it. Workers need to have heightened awareness of the potential risks home or public internet connections present, especially when it comes to hackers, malware and phishers. If you have not updated your training efforts since the pandemic began, do so now. Your policies and protective measures need to reflect the realities of working in a COVID-19 world.

Risk Assessments and Access

This is a good time to review the level of access each individual employee needs when it comes to files that include IP or sensitive information. While it can be time-consuming up-front, if you prevent IP from falling into the wrong hands, it will be well worth the time and effort. Tightening up access and improving data security protocols can be a real deterrent to third-party IP thieves.

Layoffs

An employee termination is difficult under any circumstances, but a remote work situation presents new issues. It is not as simple as returning a laptop or shipping it back to the company. The affected employee can copy sensitive files, trade secrets and other valuable proprietary information. Your IT, Human Resources and Legal departments should work together on protocols and procedures to prevent that theft.

Make Cyber-security a Top-of-mind Priority

Hacking is a digital pandemic. Every minute of every day, bad actors look for loopholes and weak spots to exploit networks, email systems, malware, telephone scams- as a way to infiltrate a company and steal its most valuable assets. Training and education should not just be an annual “tick-the-box” exercise; if a company is truly committed to protecting IP, trade secrets and valuable information, it needs to be a tangible priority. While there is no completely effective “cure” when it comes to cybertheft, training, education, diligence and vigilance can reduce the risk and keep bad actors at a safe distance.

Use Available Resources

Finally, obtain software that detects theft of important information early or partner with governmental authorities to better protect the company. With regard to detection, there are many different types of software available that function from providing alerts if an employee downloads certain information to embedding code that serves no purpose but would be in any software that is copied. One example of partnering with governmental authorities is InfraGard (https://www.infragard. org/), a partnership between the FBI and companies that provides a vehicle for the exchange of information and protection of the critical infrastructure of the company.

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