Erik Elgersma, author of The Strategic Analysis Cycle, shares his insight into trade secret leaks, and why the answer to security breaches might be more simple than it seems…
Revelation upon revelation hit the press this year. Leaks have always been there but today the frequency of secrets being spilled, especially in the Trump administration, looks to hit an all-time-high. Secrets may in principle be lost in two ways: inside-out or outside-in. I define outside-in as a party that sends a collector to illegally obtain another party’s secret. In some cases, however, secrets are lost not because some party was after them but because an insider aimed to hurt his own turf. This I would call an inside-out loss of secrets. Surprisingly perhaps, it is the latter form that is most common. 2014 research reveals that 60% of business trade secret losses, in spite of all outside-in cyber-crime, identify current or former employees as the most likely source of leaks. Hence, inside-out dominates outside-in.
So what drives people to leak? And how can we prevent our own people leaking trade secrets? In search of answers I revisited 1980s Cold War studies on the psychology of leakers to find insights on why people spill secrets. These insights concern human psychology, which makes them timeless. Here’s what I found:
Money, revenge or shame generally drive leakers
Leakers (defectors in military parlance) tend to have one of three motives for leaking [trade] secrets:
– money: the knowledge that [trade] secrets can be sold to an adversary
– revenge: the knowledge that leaking [trade] secrets hurts their former
employer: as a way to pay back some kind of perceived slight
– shame: to prevent the adversary leaking compromising information on the defector
The acronym MICE is sometimes used to characterize motives of leakers: Money, Ideology (= in business: revenge), Compromise and Ego (which may drive a desire for money).
The key lesson for business: a happy staff is a joy forever
What all leakers have in common is that they are so unhappy about their current situation that they are moved to do something about it. The first, rather obvious lesson for business is that to prevent trade secrets being leaked, maintaining a happy staff is the first step. It is, however, a dream to expect all staff to be happy all the time.
Still, a would-be leaker that has colleagues that treat him with kindness and understanding in his perceived trying circumstances, may either help them feel remorse about what they may have done wrong or may help to prevent them doing wrong in the first place. Most leakers are too smart to leave traces. Traditional security systems will not easily catch them. A company culture of kindness and understanding may, however, even before the wrong has been done.
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