Category: Security

Computer ForensicsComputer SecuritySecurity

Tesla Trade Secrets Lawsuit: Investigators & Expert Witnesses

Did you hear about Tesla suing a former employer for stealing trade secrets?

Early last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk emailed Tesla employees reporting another employee had done some pretty significant sabotage to the company’s manufacturing operations. According to one Ars Technica article, “In the all-hands email to Tesla staff, Musk wrote that the employee had made ‘direct code changes’ to the company’s production systems, as well as exporting ‘large amounts’ of Tesla’s data to unknown third parties.”

In the same article, Ars Technica quotes Musk’s email further, “the alleged saboteur could have been working with short sellers, oil and gas companies—whom he described as ‘sometimes not super nice’—or ‘the multitude of big gas/diesel car company competitors.’ Of this last group, Musk reminded his employees that, since the traditional OEMs have been known to cheat emissions tests, ‘maybe they’re willing to cheat in other ways.'”

Mr. Musk is not subtle in his indication that he believes the saboteur may have been working with others in a coordinated effort of corporate espionage and theft of trade secrets.

Later in the week, Tesla filed suit against a now-former-employee, Martin Tripp. We can only assume this is the employee to whom Mr. Musk referred in the earlier email, given the civil complaint allegations against Mr. Tripp. The civil complaint link is courtesy of Cyrus Farivar of Ars Technica.

The civil complaint alleges Mr. Tripp violated the Defend Trade Secrets Act and the Nevada Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Further, Tesla alleges of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty of loyalty, and violating the Nevada Computer Crimes Law.

To me, the interesting part was the “prayer for relief” (an absurdly arcane way of saying “this is what we want!”).  Here’s the summary. Take note of the first item:

tesla-prayer-for-relief

Section A goes hand in hand with Elon Musk’s comments indicating the saboteur may have been acting with unknown third parties. The legal action seems intended to prohibit the use of any stolen trade secrets and preventing any potential financial or competitive damage resulting from corporate espionage.

What experts played a role or may play a role?

The case being brand new (complaint filed last week), I don’t expect we’ll hear about expert witness involvement for some time. However, I do imagine some experts (working for Tesla) were involved in uncovering the alleged sabotage.

Digital Forensics, Computer Security, Corporate Security, Software, Human Resources…

We know from the complaint there are allegations that Mr. Tripp stole trade secrets from Tesla. According to the complaint, Mr. Tripp “has thus far admitted to writing software that hacked Tesla’s manufacturing operating system (MOS) and to transferring several gigabytes of Tesla data to outside entities.” To someone like me, with fairly basic coding experience, it appears Mr. Tripp was quite advanced. He was able to bypass Tesla’s internal security to install hacking software.

Mr. Tripp has not admitted, but Tesla further alleges, “he also wrote computer code to periodically export Tesla’s data off it’s network and into the hands of third parties.” This sentence alone makes me wonder why Tesla did not add potential JOHN DOES to the complaint. Nevertheless, the complaint continues, “his hacking software was operating on three separate computer systems of other individuals at Tesla so that the data would be exported even after he left the company and so that those individuals would be falsely implicated as guilty parties.” Again, I mention this is a pretty advanced thought process because Mr. Tripp had plans to cover his tracks.

Given this information, I presume Tesla’s corporate security in conjunction with their legal department had to investigate Mr. Tripp’s actions for some time before terminating his employment and filing suit.

This investigation was likely to include those with knowledge and experience in digital forensics, computer security, and hacking software. Since the investigation involved an employee, I suppose there’s a chance human resources was included in the investigation as well.

Why was the investigation likely to include this variety of individuals? Tesla had to identify the breach using digital forensics and computer security experts. After recognizing the hacking software in their system, it’s possible they would have reviewed the code to see how it breached their computer security and I assume they would be able to identify the terminals on which the code resided. Since Mr. Tripp had taken precautions to misdirect Tesla, they may have identified the three other employees as responsible parties early in the investigation, causing them to monitor those employees.

Having watched enough spy movies to pretend I know what I’m talking about, I have to imagine Tesla would want to identify the third party entities mentioned in the complaint. So, they probably allowed some data to be exported while they were monitoring the situation in an effort to identify those who may have conspired with Mr. Tripp. With my spy movie knowledge, prognostications, and five bucks, you can get a cup of coffee.

Of this, I am certain. Tesla had to use investigators familiar with protection of intellectual property and digital evidence collection. Experts listed above would have the appropriate specialization to conduct this investigation in preparation for the recent litigation.

So as the litigation develops and if it goes to trial, I will expect to see software, digital forensics, computer security, corporate security, and human resources experts and consultants assisting in discovery and preparing for trial.