Stealing computer secrets -- it's nothing new

The stealing of company secrets in the computer industry is ''an everyday kind of occurrence,'' according to Sanford Sherizen, a professor of criminology and sociology at Boston University.

''The marketplace for stolen ideas or (even) half-developed ideas is enormous ,'' he points out. It's much easier for a company to do reverse engineering on computer components, for example, if it also has ''vast amounts of ideas and other intellectual property'' from its competitor. ''You literally don't have to break (the competitor's product) down in the same way,'' he says.

In some cases, Professor Sherizen says, ''the law is not very clear in terms of what is proprietary information and what employees can and cannot take with them when they leave a job. Some of these attempts (to obtain information) skirt the line of legality. Sometimes they go over the line.

''I know of companies that are very competitive in the computer marketplace that take the stance that if anyone supplied them with . . . information that they knew was stolen or that somehow they should not have, they would fire that individual. . . .

''Other companies take the position, 'If we get it, and it helps us, we won't ask any questions.' And in fact, in some cases, people who have gotten this information where no questions were asked are rewarded for it, because they helped their company.''

Illegal export of US technology will continue, says Sherizen, regardless of administration policy. ''I'm convinced that the Reagan administration cannot do very much at all (to control export of technology). There's going to continue to be a great deal of selling of information overseas and it will go on all the time through major loopholes of the Export Administration Act and the Defense Department's controlled commodities list.

''There will be occasional crackdowns,'' he says, like the scam used to trap two Japanese companies recently, ''but basically these are everyday kinds of events.''

In response, US computer firms are looking for ways to tighten security. ''I've been very interested in watching how some of these companies have been taking on the military . . . (administrative) model - separation of duties, need-to-know kind of principles,'' says Sherizen.

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