Stolen Proprietary Information: As Concerning in Baseball as It Is in Business

There was big news earlier this week when Major League Baseball (MLB) handed down punishment after investigating a systematic method of cheating on the part of the Houston Astros. Just as the Astros were stealing vital information from their competitors, your competitors or detractors might be looking to steal critical information from you. Are you ready?

Source: aristreer / iStock / Getty

First, a little recent history is in order. The Houston Astros won their first and only World Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017. Current Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora was Houston’s bench coach that year. The next year, Cora became the Red Sox’s manager. In 2018, the Sox won the World Series. Again, the Dodgers got the short end of the stick.**

Earlier this week, MLB closed an investigation of Houston’s sign-stealing activity in 2017, much of it apparently designed and implemented by Cora. MLB lowered the boom: 1-year suspensions for Manager A.J. Hinch and General Manager Jeff Luhnow, a $5,000,000 fine against the Astros, and multiple draft picks revoked. Houston’s owner immediately fired both Hinch and Luhnow. And, Cora has been asked to leave the Red Sox.

Anyone who follows baseball knows that sign stealing is a long-standing and recognized part of the sport. Everyone tries to decode the opposition’s hand signals to predict which pitch or gambit is coming next. Legend even has it that Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World’” that secured the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers may have been aided by some sign stealing that tipped Thompson to a high and inside fastball. No one is going to get too bent out of shape over anyone trying to steal signs.

How you do it is important, though, and that’s where we come to the Astros. The MLB investigation found (conclusively, I might add) that the Astros tapped into the instant replay feed and streamed the footage to a monitor just behind the dugout. Astros staff would monitor the feed, pick up on signals, and bang a trash can (yes, a trash can) to let the batter know which pitch to expect. You won’t be surprised to hear that Houston tended to hit pretty well at home. Oh, and one other thing: MLB had forbade stealing signs by technological means.

The Espionage Connection

Chances are the folks reading this post don’t work for a baseball team, but chances are just as likely you have “signs” or other sensitive business information you don’t want your competition to learn. We’ve covered nondisclosure agreements and the like before, but what are some practical measures and warning signs that your proprietary information and trade secrets may be at risk?

  • Let’s start with the analog methods. If you have paper documents or tangible items that are secret, here’s some brilliant advice: Don’t leave them out where anyone can walk in and see them. When they’re not in use, lock ‘em up in a cabinet. When you need to get rid of them, shred or destroy them. Do not just toss them in the trash and expect your trade secrets to stay secret. Your competitors aren’t necessarily above dumpster diving for your data—it really does happen.
  • Getting into the electronic realm, guard those passwords! You can set up the most advanced and secure network money can buy. If your brilliant, advanced research team leaves their usernames and passwords on a sticky note on their desks, though, your high-dollar system isn’t very secure at all. Another tip: Make your eggheads use some difficult passwords, and change the passwords up from time to time. If the geniuses select “Password1!” as their key to your kingdom, well … maybe you should have them take that IQ test one more time.
  • Keep your eyes peeled! Electronic information can walk out of your building in some pretty inventive ways. True story: I once saw a Barbie doll rigged so that Barbie’s head would pop off to reveal a standard USB connector. This Barbie wasn’t a doll—she was a clandestine storage device capable of holding up to 1 terabyte of data (bet you’ll never look at your employees’ little desk tchotchkes the same way ever again, eh?). Protect yourself by monitoring how your data are accessed and used on your system, and if you see unusual downloads or activity, look into it.

** DISCLAIMER: Please note that I despise the Dodgers. I do not weep over their misfortune.