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Chinese document-sharing platforms spill corporate secrets

Employees seeking pocket money post confidential files to a Baidu-run site

Highlighting the struggle to protect information in the digital age, files from hundreds of companies have been posted on Chinese document-sharing platforms.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Internal files from hundreds of companies have been posted on Chinese document-sharing platforms, highlighting the ongoing struggle to protect information in the digital age.

Documents from 186 Japanese enterprises, ranging from manufacturers to service providers, have been found on the document-sharing platform of China's Baidu since mid-2017, according to Crosswarp, a Tokyo-based company offering information security and rights management services.

The documents, posted on the internet heavyweight's Wenku (library) platform, were marked as "confidential" or "secret." They included product designs, an apparent training document that explains product features, and even a customer service manual from a restaurant chain.

The documents are posted by people seeking pocket money. Many Chinese document-sharing sites reward contributors with points, usable on shopping sites, each time a file is downloaded.

"The people who download the documents could be rival operators or just curious people," said Junichi Yamashita, head of information security at Crosswarp.

Crosswarp also confirmed the presence of internal documents from a South Korean mobile smartphone maker and multiple Chinese electronic makers. English documents from American companies can also be found.

"Workers at companies' Chinese units are posting documents such as training material to make a little money. They write attractive headlines to invite users to download," Yamashita said.

The documents themselves do not need to be stolen. Some uploaded documents are images taken with smartphone cameras. The person who posts the document can decide on the price or points needed to download it.

Internal documents from 186 Japanese companies have appeared on Baidu's WenKu since last June.

Leaked materials on WenKu have been a problem for some time. In 2013, Japan External Trade Organization, or JETRO, published information on how companies could file a compliant to Baidu and request that a document be taken down.

But the flow of secrets remains robust and often outpaces efforts by businesses to police leaks. A Tokyo-based office equipment maker asked WenKu to remove a Chinese-language document comparing its various offerings after The Nikkei brought it to the company's attention.

While the document "contained only public, nonsensitive information," the company is "aware that leaks of documents meant for internal use are a problem," a public relations representative said.

WenKu contributors must affirm they are not violating copyrights, Baidu told The Nikkei. Documents constituting violations are taken down quickly, and the company is working to strengthen checks for such material, it said.

While stealing corporate secrets is illegal in China, it is punishable only in cases where heavy damage to the company results, said Yusuke Wakebe, an attorney knowledgeable about Chinese law. It is difficult to prove such damage in connection with documents posted on sharing platforms, making criminal punishment a weak deterrent, Wakebe said.

Solving the problem may thus fall to businesses themselves. "In addition to taking preventative measures, such as having employees sign confidentiality agreements and holding seminars to raise awareness about the handling of sensitive information, companies need to ascertain the source of any leaks and take strong steps to prevent a recurrence," Wakebe said.

Nikkei Asian Review Chief Desk Editor Ken Moriyasu contributed to this report.

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