5 ways to protect your competitive intelligence against prying eyes

When we are working on client deliverables we never run the risk that competitors may look over our shoulders and see what we are writing. We only work out of a disused nuclear bunker in Sweden. However, most people work on airplanes, at Starbucks, at conferences and so on. Here are five very basic ways to reduce the chances that the document you are working on is read by an undesirable reader.


1. Choose where you work. It is almost inevitable that you will work on client deliverables at a café. But we have seen vendors doing client work from an event that the client's competitor is hosting. Try not to work from the café near your client's competitor's offices. Do not work from the café near your client's offices either, as the people there are more likely to be contractors to your client, or employees who should not be aware of your work. The prying eyes against which you are protecting your work are not just those of competitors, but everyone who is not explicitly involved in the project. Think about the flight that you are on - if you are on a flight from New York to San Francisco and working on a deck for a Silicon Valley company, you can guarantee other passengers on that plane will include competitors, client employees, analysts and so on. This is even more true if you are flying to an event, say the Web 2.0 conference or eBay's analyst day. Assume that the WiFi network of an interested party may be compromised. We will deal with proper security in a later post, but do not email your slides for Microsoft from a Google press event, as we have seen people do.

2. Make the text physically difficult to read. Dim your screen, choose a small font size, find a font that is difficult to read, angle the screen so that it is difficult to read by people sitting behind you. Remember that in dark environments such as airplane cabins or conference talks, even a dimmed screen is easy to read from the row behind you. There are dimming films and shields you can buy for your laptop screen (although no one uses these much).

3. Change mentions of your client's name. As soon as you open a file to work on, change all instances of your client's name to something like "xxxxx". Your slides now become a generic presentation about Indian call centres, not about how Bank of Client plans to offshore its helpdesk there. It is easy to change "xxxxx" back to your client's name at the end.

4. Lose your branding. Particularly with PowerPoint, your branding is usually part of the template. Someone reading over your shoulder will become far more interested if they know you work for a competitive intelligence agency, or Goldman Sachs or the CIA, than if your slides have no branding. Knowing where you work also allows a reader to research later what they read now, and possibly guess the client for whom you are working.

5. Be careful what you say out loud. I was born with the gift of permanent mumbling, so no one can hear what I say even when I shout it into their ear. Most people are not so lucky. Countless are the instances of colleagues discussing things in public venues that are overheard and passed on, even publicly blogged. See (1) above and assume that anywhere within five miles of the client's offices, within five miles of a competitor's offices, at an industry event or on an airplane are taboo areas for such conversations.

Always assume that someone nearby will be interested in reading what you are writing. Analyst-types and intelligent people (the two groups are not mutually exclusive) are likely to read everything around them - the airline menu, the slides of the person on their left or the crossword puzzle of the person on their right. Perhaps this is unethical, perhaps not, but it does not matter - other people's ethics are not the issue.

So remember kids, be careful where you do it, do it secretly and quietly and stay safe.