In a legal battle to document the alleged industrial espionage of its former chief technology officer, iMerge.nl has obtained a court order requiring Google to release information associated with a Gmail "spybox." IMerge is an e-commerce business incubator based in the Netherlands.
"The suspect was, until September 2006, active as CTO, and had designed the [company's] security network," said Martijn Hoogeveen, CEO of iMerge, in an e-mail. "It is always very difficult to protect against the threat from within."
The former CTO, Hoogeveen claims, had installed a "backdoor" server in the company's hosting center. Although the company had changed all the passwords when the suspect left the company, the backdoor server went undetected. It was revealed when a subsequent network audit showed that financial information had been copied to the server. It turned out that the server had been set up to forward information from a corporate director's mailbox to the so-called spybox, a Gmail account used as a document drop.
Hoogeveen said he'd had suspicions about the CTO, a former partner, for some time because the suspect had been harassing people associated with the company with information that he shouldn't have known. This included knowledge of negotiations about the sale of one of its e-retail company, TakeItNow.com, which had been successfully concluded and was being kept quiet through a nondisclosure agreement. The suspect claimed he was providing information about another iMerge company, ICEcat.biz, to one of the company's competitors.
The final straw, said Hoogeveen, "was that he forwarded private (love) mail of one of our directors to his wife. She provided these (14) e-mails to us, which were sent from an anonymous Gmail account. Their marriage was already heading for a divorce, but the disclosed e-mails and dishonorable allegations about the victimized director created an unworkable situation. In the e-mails also the name of the main suspect was mentioned a few times."
According to the Dutch court's ruling, Google resisted iMerge's request for information about the Gmail account in question to protect user privacy, saying that iMerge didn't have a legitimate interest in the data requested and that its request was unlikely to identify the account owner because of the limited information Google requires for Gmail accounts to be opened.
Nonetheless, a Dutch court recently ruled in iMerge's favor and ordered Google to reveal the information associated with the Gmail account "firstname.lastname@example.org" and the IP addresses used to access it.
"We needed user information from the Gmail account to rule out other possible suspects or accomplices," said Hoogeveen. As it turns out, the suspect's new employer's IP address is in the IP list provided by Google, according to Hoogeveen.
"We are waiting now on the last bits and pieces of the Gmail box (the registration data), and are preparing a next case against Dutch Telecom (KPN / xs4all), to prove other allegations," he said.
Mark Meijjer, iMerge's counsel, observed in a statement that it is "surprising how easy it is to harass innocent people with anonymous (Gmail) accounts. The verdict shows that U.S.-based Google Inc. is willing to comply [with] Dutch law, and that the privacy of a victim 'overrules' the privacy of the person who did wrong. As it should be."
The law in the Netherlands prohibits Hoogeveen from naming the suspect, presumably to protect the person's privacy.
According to Hoogeveen, there's a maximum penalty of one year in prison or a fine for accessing someone's e-mail account in the Netherlands without authorization. However, repeated break-ins multiply the possible penalty. He said the damage claim could reach 10 million euros ($13.3 million) if his company can prove that stolen information was provided to a competitor. And the suspect should lose his shares in the company, if convicted.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment. As a matter of policy, it does not reveal user information unless required to do so by law. The degree of legal online privacy protection afforded to individuals varies widely from country to country.
This article was edited on 10/20 to clarify statements made by iMerge.