Technology Makes Trade Secrets Tempting Targets

Sunday, June 23, 2013
Becton, Dickinson and Co.’s announcement that it was about to roll out a new, easy-to-use, disposable pen injector called Vystra hardly caused a stir last October.

Although an executive for the Franklin Lakes, N.J.-based medical technology maker said the injector, unveiled at a Las Vegas convention, would introduce “a new level of flexibility for drug manufacturers,” the announcement made few ripples outside the industry.

Now, that’s changed, though not for reasons BD wanted. The new device has become the center of a criminal case in which an engineer, Ketankumar Maniar, 36, who helped create Vystra, is accused of stealing thousands of computer files relating to the pen injector shortly before he quit his job, saying he planned to move back to his native India.

According to the FBI, which arrested Maniar on June 5, the files gave him a “veritable tool kit for mass-producing the disposable pen.” And the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey charged him with “theft of trade secrets for his own economic benefit,” which could result in up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The case is among several involving allegations of theft of trade secrets, a crime that the Justice Department has made a priority. And it also shines a light on the sophisticated security technology companies are employing to stop it.

In March, a federal judge sentenced a native of China, Sixing Liu, to 70 months in prison for exporting sensitive U.S. military technology to China and stealing trade secrets. Prosecutors said Liu downloaded thousands of files from his employer, L-3 Communications’ space and navigation division in Budd Lake, N.J.

Ten months earlier, Yuan Li, a former research chemist who made drug compounds for Sanofi-Aventis, was given 18 months in prison for stealing trade secrets by downloading files on the compounds to her home computer and selling them through a Chinese company of which she was a co-owner.

David W. Opderbeck, director of the Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology at Seton Hall University, said civil suits involving allegations of trade-secret theft are fairly common — more so lately because digital documents have become so easy to copy.

“I used to litigate these cases 10 years ago, and they usually involved 20 or 100 boxes of documents,” he said. “Now, you can fit much more than that onto a thumb drive.”

The theft of trade secrets to be sent overseas is also more common than in the past, when such thefts were mainly executed to set up a rival company or to extort money from the secret’s owner, he said.

Such cases rarely involve criminal charges, but the bottom line is the same, whether it’s a criminal case or civil, Opderbeck said: Attorneys have to prove that the information or documents stolen had economic value and that they were truly secret and confidential.

The criminal complaint against Maniar, which was filed the same day as his arrest, refers to the product that he worked on only in general terms. But it’s identified as Vystra in a civil suit filed by BD a week before Maniar’s arrest, which also reveals new details in the case.

The company’s suit alleges that Maniar “misappropriated and threatens to disclose and use BD trade secrets to his and others’ competitive advantage,” in violation of New Jersey’s Trade Secrets Act.