Glossary Term

Intellectual Property (IP) Theft

Intellectual property theft (IP theft) refers to the robbing of people or companies of their ideas, inventions, and creative expressions (i.e., their IP). There are four main types of IP, including trade secrets, trademarks, copyrights, and patents. IP can include everything from proprietary products and parts, to movies, music, web content, business processes, and software. The World Intellectual Property Organization defines IP as “creations of the mind,” such as inventions, literary and artistic works, symbols, names, images and designs used in commerce.

Common Intellectual Property Theft Scenarios

IP theft can result in serious economic damage, loss of competitive edge, and decreased business growth. In fact, the total theft of U.S. trade secrets accounts for anywhere from $180 billion to $540 billion per year, according to the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property.

IP theft impacting large, global enterprises tend to dominate the media headlines, while equally debilitating instances of IP theft affecting smaller companies often go unreported. With the risk of IP theft high for companies of all sizes and industries, it’s important to be well-versed in IP theft tactics to better protect critical assets and long-term business health. Common IP theft scenarios include:

Human Error: Any time a well-intentioned employee loses a device with company data on it, accidentally sends files containing trade secrets outside the company network, or inadvertently shares confidential data with unauthorized parties, IP theft can easily and quickly occur. For example, back in 2017, an Apple engineer brought his daughter to work, during which time she captured footage via her blog of the unreleased iPhone X, employee-only QR codes, and a notes app with code names of unreleased Apple products.

Hacking: By using spear phishing techniques to inject themselves into company networks, malicious actors can steal large volumes of IP and other confidential business and technological information. For example, for nearly 10 years a hacking group called the Advanced Persistent Threat 10 (APT 10) targeted the networks of more than 45 technology companies and U.S. government agencies in an effort to steal sensitive information and data pertaining to a variety of new and developing technologies. The hackers also targeted these companies’ managed service providers and their customer networks.

Access Exploitation: By exploiting their access to sensitive files, disgruntled employees can steal trade secrets and share them with competitors or criminals. For example, last year it was discovered that former employees at biotechnology company GlaxoSmithKline stole trade secrets to benefit a Chinese pharmaceutical company by emailing confidential files and transferring proprietary data via electronic storage devices.

Intellectual Property Theft Prevention Best Practices

Catching and prosecuting IP thieves is very difficult, and attempting to repossess stolen IP is even more challenging. To keep IP safe, consider adhering to the following six best practices:

Identify Your IP: Everyone in an organization can work to protect IP if they understand what exactly needs to be protected and from whom. Ensure corporate leadership is regularly communicating with departments such as HR, marketing, sales, legal, product, and R&D to adequately protect IP.

Locate Your IP: If you don’t know where your IP resides, you can’t protect it by putting proper policies and procedures into place. Look beyond core IT systems and processes, such as printers, copiers, scanners, and fax machines. Cloud applications and file-sharing services will also often house IP, as will employees’ personal devices. Lastly, don’t forget about third-party systems, as IP is typically shared with partners, suppliers, and customers.

Conduct a Risk and Cost-Benefit Analysis: Outline all of your organization’s assets to determine what IP loss would cause the most harm and which of those assets are most at risk of being stolen. By evaluating these two factors together, organizations can prioritize their IP and objectively identify where to spend their protective efforts and capital.

Label Your Most Valuable Assets: It may seem simple, but placing a banner or label on any information that’s confidential or proprietary is critical. Should an organization end up in court attempting to prove IP theft, for instance, they’ll need to show that they made it clear that the data in question was clearly labeled as confidential and protected.

Educate Employees: Humans — even well-intentioned ones — are often the weakest link in the security chain. Prioritize educating all employees so they fully comprehend how they can expose IP, even unintentionally. In particular, make sure they understand the risks of accidental IP breaches as a result of using external email platforms, file sharing services, collaboration tools like Google Docs or Dropbox, cloud resources such as S3 buckets and chat apps like Slack or WhatsApp.

Identify the Security Gaps: Thinking like an attacker is often the most productive way to protect IP as it can reveal hidden or unforeseen security gaps. For example, after assuming a hacker’s viewpoint, perhaps it’s discovered that additional security needs to be applied to traditionally overlooked components such as phone contacts, recycling bins, conference room phones or TVs or even (physical) office entry points.

Combatting Intellectual Property Theft Requires Artificial Intelligence and Automation

Cybersecurity tools are excellent at identifying noisy, malware-based attacks. However, with more nuanced attacks like IP theft, bad actors have adapted, resorting to non-malware techniques in an effort to go undetected. By relying on tools that already exist within an environment, abusing insider credentials, taking advantage of insecure, non-traditional devices, and/or using legitimate sites for command and control, attackers are able to enter secure networks and steal valuable assets without being noticed. This means organizations’ security teams must now be able to detect malicious intent that easily blends in with business-justified activities — a task too tedious and challenging for most security analysts.

To realistically stay ahead of the ever-present risk of IP theft, organizations need to leverage real-world threat hunting expertise via technology like the Awake Security Platform. By applying artificial intelligence to bring human knowledge to all customers, instantly analyzing billions of communications to discover every device, user, and application on a network, and automating all threat hunting and investigation, Awake offers the invaluable ability to detect malicious intent and identify IP theft performed by both internal and external actors.

Also See



If you liked what you just read, subscribe to hear about our threat research and security analysis.