BONITA SPRINGS — When trade secrets are stolen, it often throws executives into a panicked frenzy as they attempt to minimize damage. How can corporations protect their intellectual properties, and what should they do if espionage occurs?
These issues are central to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Economic Espionage Unit, which has taken on a much larger role in recent years. Although such white-collar crimes don’t usually threaten national security, they do threaten Americans’ livelihood and quality of life.
Peter J. Lapp, FBI Unit Chief for Economic Espionage, spoke to a crowd of about 265 at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point December 3 as the featured guest for the Southwest Florida Speakers Assembly, which brings high profile speakers to Estero each month.
Lapp, who has been a special agent with the FBI since 1998, highlighted several high-profile cases in an attempt to help business professionals minimize their risk of trade secret theft.
“My goal is to create awareness about this problem and try to get companies to start thinking about how you’re going to be reacting to this and how you’re going to be proactive,” Lapp said. “Hopefully, if they’re proactive, they can prevent a loss before it happens.”
Lapp also aims to show corporations how to “be a good victim” if trade secrets are leaked. He urges business management to form a written plan for investigating alleged crimes, calculating losses and communicating with the FBI.
Lapp and his unit have investigated cases involving dozens of corporate giants, including Coca Cola, DuPont, Motorola and even Home Depot. “Who would’ve thunk that Home Depot had trade secrets?” Lapp joked. “I thought they sold hammers and nails.”
The most recent economic espionage case involves Indianapolis-based Dow Chemical, while another case heading to trial charges Jin Hanjuan of stealing $600 million in trade secrets from Motorola.
Lapp personally led the investigation of Gary Yonggang Min, who was convicted in 2007 of stealing more than $400 million of proprietary technology from DuPont. It’s estimated Min downloaded nearly 100 percent of DuPont’s trade secrets regarding Kevlar technology, Lapp said.
The biggest case the unit has investigated was against Dongfan “Greg” Chung, a naturalized citizen from China who handed over 250,000 confidential documents to the Chinese government during his 30-year stint at Boeing. He was convicted to 16 years in prison in 2009, the strongest sentence ever handed down for economic espionage.
Many in Friday’s crowd expressed dismay that most individuals convicted of selling trade secrets receive sentences of just 18 to 24 months in prison.
“I would like to see some heavier sentences,” Lapp noted, at one point joking, “I like to put people in jail.”
Although many of the convicted spies have been Chinese nationals, Lapp identified “smart people” with PhDs and MBAs as the group most likely to possess the skill set necessary for using trade secrets for personal gain.
Many attendees asked questions about the current WikiLeaks scandal, which is being handled by another unit of the FBI’s Counterespionage Section. While Lapp remained tightlipped, he commented, “It’s a high priority investigation. Now that the information is out there, I’m not sure what can be done to retrieve it. The damage is done.”
He insisted government and private industry need to do a better job of limiting employees’ access or ability to download sensitive information. “Once you give information to people, you’re exposing it to risk. Having good security awareness is huge.”
As always, several outstanding local students were invited to join the Speakers Assembly. Jordan Roth, a senior at Fort Myers High School, was especially eager to hear from an FBI agent, since he aims to work in the CIA one day.
“It was a really great opportunity,” said Roth, who participated in a small group meeting with Lapp before the luncheon. “He helped me out with possible career paths and college study.”
The lecture, sponsored by The Daily News and The Banner, was part of the Speakers Assembly’s 15th anniversary season. Last month, more than 400 members gathered to hear from Forbes President Steve Forbes. Next month will bring Louis E. Lataif, dean of School Management at Boston University.
Membership in the Speakers Assembly is open to those who “seek to be enlightened, educated and entertained” and is comprised of 71 percent retired executives and business owners. Jackie Hauserman, a Realtor serving as this season’s president, sums it up this way: “The thing I love about this is the intellectual stimulation you get.”