How much longer can Europe afford to ignore cyber-enabled ‘trade secret theft’ as a form of IP Crime?

The latest report from the EUIPO and Europol on IP Crime threats assessment makes clear that such threats are viewed as limited to instances of piracy and counterfeiting. Important as these criminal activities may be to threaten the health of our economy such a limited approach is at odds with American jurisprudence where, ”the threat of trade secrets theft to U.S. corporations conducting business internationally is a well-recognized and extensively documented phenomenon”, and “top intellectual property priority” for investigation by the FBI. The United States Trade Representative’s Special 301 Report (2018) goes further by identifying a failure to adequately protect trade secrets by trading partners as a key area of concern, given U.S. government recognition that “trade secrets may constitute the most critical intellectual property assets” for U.S. corporations.

It was for this reason that the U.S. government reported it had been, “extremely active in Brussels in support of the EU trade secrets directive” (2016), using its co-chairmanship of the Transatlantic IPR Working Group to push ”this topic to the forefront on EU action on intellectual property matters”, albeit this legislative initiative was ultimately only limited to the civil law domain.

Work undertaken by the OECD in 2014 recognises that the U.S. leads the world in the legal protection of trade secrets, with the UK struggling to stay above the average – behind the legal jurisdictions of Canada, Lithuania, Spain, Japan, Netherlands, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Hong Kong (China), Singapore and Australia. A UN Conference on Trade and Development Report (2011) confirmed over 50% of global trade in services is now undertaken online, with a global fraud report (2010) recording incidents of data theft now surpassing that of physical theft. One area of primary concern highlighted by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2012 was,”emerging powers are putting economics at the centre of their foreign policies” and making commercial cyber espionage a central part of their policy toolbox.

During his presidential campaign candidate Trump highlighted the blue-ribbon panel report into the Theft of American Intellectual Property, the updated version of which cites estimates of the value of trade secret theft as between 1% to 3% of GDP. It is sobering to note the Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy would point out, “there is no evidence or indication that cyber espionage against European firms is any lesser in scale than against other countries,” offering an estimation of “the cost of cyber espionage to Europe at 55 billion euros annually (and placing) 289,000 jobs at risk.”

Whereas the UK government would advocate that the solution lies with firms enhancing their own cybersecurity protection, such an approach is likely to become increasingly unrealistic as a holistic solution in the emerging 5G/Industry 4 era, where decades of R&D are susceptible to being ‘hacked’ at the click of the mouse.  Calls for parity of criminal law protection with SME counterparts in the U.S. can only be expected to grow within the UK.

With the UK providing notice to leave the EU and looking to build upon its current trading position with the U.S. a parity of criminal law protection against trade secret theft can only offer some reassurance to the U.S., with a trading partner which is currently said to offer better criminal law protection for the boardroom table than the theft of boardroom secrets (Alan Campbell QC 1967).

Welcome though such a legislative initiative might be for our vulnerable SMEs, Europol has already reported that national criminal legislation cannot of itself provide a unilateral solution. With TRIPS now nearing a quarter of a century of operation there are reassuring signs that the U.S., Japan and EU are starting to form a ‘coalition of the willing’ to work together on the margins of the TRIPS Council to elaborate upon the nature of the legal protection to be afforded under Article 39, with a special emphasis on SMEs (side event 9th November 2016).

Europe has been at the vanguard of developments for the legal protection of personal data, the question is whether the appetite now exists to extend the legal protection for valuable commercial data by using the criminal law.

First Intergovernmental Standard on AI & Cyber Risk Management

In giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Cybersecurity in the UK Sir Mark Sedwill (Cabinet Secretary, Head of the UK Civil Service and UK National Security Advisor) asserted, “the law of the sea 200 years ago is not a bad parallel” for the “big international question” of cyberspace governance today (see Public Accounts Committee Oral evidence: Cyber Security in the UK, HC 1745 [1st April 2019] Q93).

In making this assertion Sir Mark may have had in mind articles such as Dr. Florian Egloff’s Cybersecurity and the Age of Privateering: A Historical Analogy in which the author asserted: 1. “Cyber actors are comparable to the actors of maritime warfare in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 2. The militarisation of cyberspace resembles the situation in the sixteenth century, when states transitioned from a reliance on privateers to dependence on professional navies. 3. As with privateering, the use of non-state actors by states in cyberspace has produced unintended harmful consequences; the emergence of a regime against privateering provides potentially fruitful lessons for international cooperation and the management of these consequences.”

In our IP Wales Guide on Cyber Defence we note: “Since 2004, a UN Group of Governmental Experts (UN GEE) has sought to expedite international norms and regulations to create confidence and security-building measures between member states in cyberspace. In a first major breakthrough, the GGE in 2013 agreed that international law and the UN Charter is applicable to state activity in cyberspace. Two years later, a consensus report outlined four voluntary peace time norms for state conduct in cyberspace: states should not interfere with each other’s critical infrastructure, should not target each other’s emergency services, should assist other states in the forensics of cyberattacks, and states are responsible for operations originating from within their territory.

The latest 2016-17 round of deliberations ended in the stalling of the UN GGE process as its members could not agree on draft paragraph 34, which details how exactly certain international law applies to a states’ use of information and communications technology. While the U.S.A. pushed for detailing international humanitarian law, the right of self-defence, and the law of state responsibility (including the countermeasures applying to cyber operations), other participants, like China and Russia, contended it was premature.”

Indeed China has gone further and condemned the U.S.A. for trying to apply double standards to the issue, in light of public disclosures of spying by their own National Security Agency (NSA).

Sir Mark went on to reveal that because cyberspace governance is being only partly addressed through the UN, “we are looking at coalitions of the willing, such as the OECD and some other countries that have similar systems to ours, to try to approach this.”

Evidence of this strategy in operation can be seen at Ministerial Council Meeting of the Organisation for Economic Co-ordination and Development (OECD) on the 22nd May 2019 when 42 countries adopted five value-based principles on artificial intelligence (AI), including AI systems “must function in a robust, secure and safe way throughout their life cycles and potential risks should be continually assessed and managed.”

The recently created UK National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has sought to give substance to this principle through offering new guidance on cybersecurity design principles. These principles are divided into five categories, loosely aligned with the stages at which a cyberattack can be mitigated: 1. “Establishing the context. All the elements that compose a system should be determined, so the defensive measures will have no blind spots. 2. Making compromise difficult. An attacker can target only the parts of a system they can reach. Therefore, the system should be made as difficult to penetrate as possible. 3. Making disruption difficult. The system should be designed so that it is resilient to denial of service attacks and usage spikes. 4. Making compromise detection easier. The system should be designed so suspicious activity can be spotted as it happens and the necessary action taken. 5. Reducing the impact of compromise. If an attacker succeeds in gaining a foothold, they will then move to exploit the system. This should be made as difficult as possible.”

Alec Ross (Senior Advisor for Innovation to Hillary Clinton as U.S. Secretary of State) warns that, “small businesses cannot pay for the type of expensive cybersecurity protection that governments and major corporations can (afford)” A Ross, Industries of the Future (2016). It remains to be seen to what extent cybersecurity design principles will become a financial impediment to small business engaging with AI developments in the near future.