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White House issues plan to use diplomacy against data theft

Feb. 21, 2013 - 01:47PM   |  
By ZACHARY FRYER-BIGGS   |   Comments
(Getty Images)

Releasing a multiagency plan that emphasizes the use of diplomatic means to deter the theft of intellectual property and trade secrets, the White House outlined a more aggressive stance against cyber espionage Wednesday afternoon.

While the plan calls for a variety of moves aimed at assisting with domestic prosecution and an improved security posture for a wide range of companies, the highlight of the document is an emphasis on the use of international representatives to pressure countries to clamp down on theft.

Although administration officials were adamant that the policy does not target any individual country, recent reports about cyber attacks and theft of technical data for military applications have largely placed blame on Chinese actors. In public, U.S. officials generally refrain from blaming China for the frequent instances of cyber corporate espionage and data theft, but in private. many have been noting for years that attacks emanating from China dominate malicious network activity.

Citing President Barack Obama’s statement in his State of the Union address that “we cannot look back years from now and wonder why we did nothing in the face of real threats to our security and our economy,” Victoria Espinel, U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, described the administration’s commitment at a press conference Feb. 20.

“We know that trade secrets play a crucial role in America’s global competitiveness,” Espinel said in a prepared statement. “As the Strategy makes clear, the administration will continue to act vigorously to combat the theft of American trade secrets that could be used by foreign companies or foreign governments to gain an unfair commercial advantage over U.S. companies. In order to continue to lead, succeed, and prosper in the 21st Century global economy, we will use this Strategy to put in place an effective and coordinated approach to protect American trade secrets.”

Short on details outlining definitive action, the plan does cite a number of opportunities for U.S. diplomats to urge countries that are the source of theft to change their ways, and to join with allied countries to place collective pressure on serious offenders.

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“The Department of State will track scheduled diplomatic engagements and meetings by senior Administration officials with governments of countries where there are regular incidents of trade secret theft or that may be complicit in trade secret theft,” according to the report, “Administration Strategy on Mitigating the Theft of U.S. Trade Secrets.”

“During these meetings, senior administration officials will deliver appropriate messages to their foreign counterparts to express the administration’s focus on reducing the incidents of trade secret theft, including improved legal frameworks, stronger enforcement of existing laws and strong and efficient remedies for trade secret owners.”

And when it comes to multilateral engagement, getting as many countries as possible to repeat the message will be key.

“Additionally, the Departments of Commerce and State and the U.S. Trade Representative will seek to build coalitions with other countries to deliver similar messages to countries of concern and to press jointly, or in coordination, for improved protection of trade secrets,” the report says.

The plan goes on to outline efforts to include provisions that would protect U.S. intellectual property (IP) in future trade agreements as well as making IP theft a central issue at future conferences.

Whether diplomatic pressure can effectively stem the tide of trade secret theft is unclear, as previous diplomatic efforts have yielded few rewards. But publicly emphasizing a coordinated approach is an important step in confronting the problem, experts said.

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