SunPower Corp has sued five of its former employees for stealing proprietary information from the solar panel manufacturer and using it to benefit a rival firm.
The five are accused of connecting personal USB storage devices to SunPower systems and stealing the data around the time they were leaving the company last year. SunPower did not notice the theft until December, when one of the former employees was caught attempting to use his email account a month after he had left the company.
The lawsuit was filed in US District Court for the Northern District of California.
Also named in the lawsuit for knowingly accepting the stolen data is SolarCity, the rival firm that now employs the five former SunPower employees.
In its complaint, SunPower alleged that a former managing director of SunPower's east coast operations and four other relatively senior employees stole tens of thousands of files from company servers and from its Salesforce.com database.
According to SunPower, the files included quotes, deals, proposals, contracts, market analyses and business analysis data. The employees are also alleged to have stolen customer contact information and information on previously sold products, and potential new clients.
The stolen information included data on customers who had accounted for some $100 million in sales for SunPower in 2011. SolarCity did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Such insider theft is not uncommon. Over the past few years, there have been numerous cases where insiders with privileged access to corporate networks and systems have misused that access to steal data.
According to research released by Symantec in December, the majority of IP theft is committed by male employees with an average age of 37, and are most often serving in technical positions such as engineers, scientists, programmers and managers.
In about 65% of the cases, employees who commit insider theft have already secured a new job with a competing company while about 20% are recruited by an outsider looking to steal specific data. More than half steal data within a month of leaving their old job.
In more than half the cases, the data stolen involves business information such as billing data, customer data, price lists and business plans the malicious insider is authorised to access.