Password protection not enough to protect trade secrets

In the case of Liebert Corp. v. Mazur, the Illinois Court of Appeals has held that customer lists stored online in password protected directories were not entitled to trade secret protection where employer did not adequately make employees aware of the lists’ confidential nature.

After several former sales representatives began working for a competitor, Plaintiffs Zonatherm Products and Liebert Corporation filed suit for violations of the Illinois Trade Secrets Act (ITSA), 765 ILCS 1065/1 et seq. and sought a preliminary injunction against the former sales representatives. The court denied the motion for preliminary injunction and plaintiffs appealed.

Zonatherm and Liebert claimed that one of the trade secrets defendants had misappropriated was the plaintiffs’ customer lists. These customer lists were stored online on a server in password protected directories, and each sales representative had a copy on his or her desktop computer. One of the issues on appeal was whether the customer lists could be protected as a trade secret under the ITSA.

To establish that information is a trade secret under the ITSA, two requirements must be met: (1) the plaintiff must show the information was sufficiently secret to give the plaintiff a competitive advantage, and (2) the plaintiff must show that it took affirmative measures to prevent others from acquiring or using the information. Although the court determined in this case that the customer lists met the first requirement, it denied trade secret protection based on the second requirement.

The court held that “[r]estricting access to sensitive information by assigning employees passwords on a need-to-know basis is a step in the right direction.” This precaution in and of itself, however was not enough. The court was “troubled by the failure to either require employees to sign confidentiality agreements, advise employees that its records were confidential, or label the information as confidential.” There was insufficient evidence in the record to show the employees understood the information to be confidential, thus the trial court’s finding that the customer lists were not trade secrets was not against the manifest weight of the evidence.

Liebert Corp. v. Mazur, — N.E.2d —, 2005 WL 762954 (Ill.App. 1st Dist., April 5, 2005).