A Midlands company is at the centre of an industrial espionage row after two engineers were charged with stealing photographs of a rival’s products.
Two workers from Wyko Tire Technology are alleged to have emailed photographs taken at a Goodyear tyre plant in the United States to the firm’s headquarters in Peartree Lane, Dudley.
Alan Roberts, aged 46, and Sean Edward Howley, 38, who work at Wyko’s Tennessee base, face up to 150 years in prison and a £1.8 million fine if found guilty of conspiring to steal trade secrets and scheming to defraud Goodyear.
According to the indictment, Wyko used the information to create tyre manufacturing machinery for a contract with a Chinese company.
Industrial espionage experts say court cases based on stolen data and technology are becoming more common as businesses invest in more computer technology.
Roberts and Howley were arrested last month by federal authorities in the US and will stand trial charged with a total of 12 offences. Wyko secured a contract in 2007 with the Haohau South China Guilin Rubber Company, a Chinese tyre manufacturer, to supply “off the road” tyre production equipment, according to the indictment.
Roberts and Howley are accused of travelling to Goodyear’s Kansas plant in May 2007 and using mobile phones to photograph tyre manufacturing equipment. The defendants later emailed the photographs, which contained valuable trade secret information, to employees in Dudley who later created similar machinery for the contract with HHSC, prosecutors allege.
Jonathan Chamberlain, a partner in the employment team at Birmingham law firm Wragge & Co, said he is regularly contacted by employers who claim valuable confidential information has been taken. “We get cases like this all the time. Most don’t go to court but it is an endemic problem,” he said.
“It is very rare for these sorts of cases to involve criminal sanctions. The prosecuting authorities in the United Kingdom don’t often get involved.
“However, it is regrettably all too common for employees to take employers’ ideas, or confidential information, or contacts and use them to compete with their employer.
“What often happens is that an employee will hand in their notice, tell their employer they are going to do something different, but be planning to work for a competitor and squirrelling things away on memory sticks or hard drives to use that information working for someone else.
“We were involved recently in a case where someone plugged in his portable hard drive 40 minutes before handing in his notice and downloaded the details of thousands of customers. It is very difficult to prove but if the evidence is strong enough, it can end up at the High Court.”
Wyko, which makes tools for tyre-makers, was taken over by the Eriks Group in November 2006 and became part of Eriks UK, which has its headquarters on Amber Way, Halesowen, in April 2008. The group employs more than 6,000 workers. A spokesman for the group declined to comment.
Previous industrial espionage cases include American defence giant Lockheed Martin, which sued its’ rival Boeing in 2003, alleging it bought confidential documents relating to a rocket programme and Marks & Spencer, which investigated apparent attempts to spy on the mobile phone records of company boss Stuart Rose in 2004.
Stratford-upon-Avon-based CCL Forensics carries out investigations on behalf of employers looking into issues like industrial espionage, fraud and theft. Forensics manager Mark Larson said the business has been able to grow despite the credit crunch because cases involving digital data have become more commonplace.
He said: “In this day and age, it is easy to walk out of a company with the crown jewels because, nowadays, crown jewels are often technology.
“Computers don’t really ever delete anything. They just leave it on the desk, so you can still examine the data.
“It is an area that is defying the credit crunch at the moment. It has been around for 10 or 15 years but people are using computers and mobile phones more and more. Everything is digital nowadays, so there is a reasonable chance you are going to leave digital footprints.”
About 90 per cent of CCL Forensics’ contracts come from the police, but the firm is also seeing rising levels of companies approaching it for forensic investigations.
Its investigators have previously helped in paedophilia, fraud, money laundering and drugs cases.