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Exploring the Role of Digital Forensics in Intellectual Property Theft Cases


Intellectual property theft is a growing problem across the globe. Specifically, this occurs when a person's inventions, ideas, or other information are used or appropriated without the creator's permission. With so much data floating around on the web and elsewhere, tracking down instances of intellectual property theft can be challenging—which is where digital forensic analysis comes into play. 

If you're interested in helping investigate and prosecute intellectual property theft and intellectual property infringement, then studying digital forensics is a logical first step. Likewise, having an in-depth understanding of what goes into investigating intellectual property violations and how this property can be safeguarded may help you determine whether this is the right career path for you.

Intellectual Property in the Digital Age 

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) defines intellectual property (IP) as "creations of the mind, such as inventions; literary and artistic works; designs; and symbols, names, and images used in commerce." 

Before the age of the internet, safeguarding intellectual property was easier because information wasn't as readily circulated as it is today. Now, data can be sent across the globe, copied, shared, and duplicated in a matter of seconds, which creates issues when it comes to intellectual property protection.

Common examples of intellectual property include (but are not limited to): 

  • Patents 
  • Copyrights and trademarks 
  • Trade secrets 
  • Industrial designs 

Different laws protect different types of intellectual property, so it's essential for digital forensics professionals to understand the nuances that apply to each type. 

The Growing Concern: Intellectual Property Theft 

Unfortunately, intellectual property theft is becoming a pressing problem around the world. This serious crime typically falls under federal jurisdiction, with its potential punishments ranging from fines and penalties to imprisonment and beyond. 

Defining IP Theft 

Intellectual property theft occurs when someone steals or appropriates someone else's proprietary inventions, unique ideas, or other novel information that is protected by intellectual property laws. No matter how this crime is carried out, it can cost a great deal of money and loss to the original creator. 

There are several different types of property theft, all of which digital forensics professionals should be well versed in to better understand how to investigate and help prosecute these crimes. The most common types of intellectual property theft include those against copyrighted material, trademarks, patents, and trade secrets. 

Intellectual property theft can also be carried out in a wide range of scenarios. Sometimes, it's a mere matter of human error, where proprietary information is accidentally uploaded to a public account or where the public can otherwise access it. In other instances, cases of intellectual property theft are more sinister—as may occur when employees knowingly steal sensitive information from their employers without permission or when a hacker or other criminal exploits access to data. 

The Crucial Role of Digital Forensics 

Digital forensics professionals play an increasingly important role in investigating and prosecuting intellectual property thieves. More than ever, we rely on digital forensics to track down the culprits behind these crimes—even when they may be located halfway across the world and hidden behind a computer. 

Unmasking the Culprits: How Digital Forensics Investigates IP Theft 

So, what exactly does digital forensics have to do with investigating and solving intellectual property infringement and theft cases? Digital forensics plays a role in numerous areas of these investigations, beginning with a study of the overall scope and impact of the crime. During this phase, digital forensics experts can analyze digital footprints, trace sources of unauthorized access, and even determine the total cost of the damage caused. 

Along with these investigations, digital forensics professionals can also assist with: 

  • Pinpointing locations where unauthorized access may have occurred. 
  • Identifying data exfiltration patterns. 
  • Serving as expert witnesses during court hearings while providing evidence. 
  • Ensuring legal compliance throughout all steps of an intellectual property theft investigation. 
  • Reconstructing timelines of intellectual property violations. 
  • Establishing the chain of custody for digital evidence and other documents related to the investigation itself. 

Detecting Intellectual Property Infringement 

Digital forensics professionals rely on a variety of specific strategies and tools throughout their investigations as well, ranging from methods for detecting intellectual property violations to tools for identifying cases of infringement. 

Strategies for Detecting IP Violations 

Some examples of methods and strategies digital forensics investigators may use when reviewing intellectual property violations include: 

  • Metadata (such as timestamps and watermarks) 
  • File creation and modification dates 
  • User information 
  • Alterations or inconsistencies in metadata (which can be a sign of tampering) 
  • Outgoing and incoming network traffic and data flows 
  • Unauthorized access or movement of files 
  • Access logs (including information on login times and locations) 

Tools for Detecting IP Infringement 

In addition to the above strategies and resources for pinpointing intellectual property theft, digital forensics experts can also use a number of tools to investigate suspected cases of intellectual property infringement. Examples of these tools include bot-powered search platforms, crawlers, and other software to proactively locate areas of the web where intellectual property is being used illegally. 

Real-Life Cases: Lessons From Intellectual Property Violations 

There is plenty for digital forensics experts to learn from previous cases of intellectual property theft and how they were investigated and handled. 

Investigating High-Profile IP Theft 

Over the years, there have been many instances of high-profile intellectual property theft. Perhaps one of the best-known cases occurred when Tesla sued another electric SUV manufacturer, claiming that the company (Rivian Automotive) illegally gained access to and utilized company trade secrets. It is believed that these trade secrets were stolen by ex-Tesla employees who later went on to form the rival company. 

Safeguarding Intellectual Property: Prevention Response 

Although the trend of intellectual property violations isn't likely to slow down anytime soon, the good news is that there are some practical measures everybody can take to protect their intellectual property and avoid becoming a statistic. 

Proactive Measures and Legal Frameworks 

First and foremost, having acceptable use policies in place is always wise—especially for businesses that handle large volumes of data and information that is accessible to employees and other stakeholders. Acceptable use policies help employees and other users understand how and when intellectual property can be used legally and when it cannot be used. These proactive efforts can help create safeguards against theft and infringement. 

Monitoring data and intellectual property is also a must, with many businesses now being proactive about flagging their most at-risk intellectual property and tracking it more closely. With proactive tracking and using the right tools (such as real-time monitoring and alerts when unauthorized access occurs), it is possible to keep intellectual property safe from misuse without disrupting productivity or efficiency. 

Considering an Online Master's Degree in Digital Forensics? 

According to data from the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property, intellectual property theft costs upwards of $225 billion to the United States economy each year. With the proper education and background in digital forensic analysis, you can do your part to better protect intellectual property and prevent costly instances of copyright infringement.

Ready to embark on an advanced education in digital forensics? Champlain College Online is proud to offer an online master's degree program in digital forensic science that can be completed in as little as six terms. As a nationally recognized leader in digital forensics, Champlain College Online provides students with the hands-on experience they need to thoroughly understand and investigate trade secret theft, property databases, and other types of cybercrime. 

Learn more about our master's degree in digital forensics by reaching out today, or get started with your free online application.

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