Aussie steel giant sues ex-manager for data theft

Australian steel giant BlueScope Steel has launched legal action to try and retrieve "highly sensitive" information from a Singapore- based former manager, Ms Chinnari Sridevi Somanchi, who has been accused of corporate spying.

A suit filed in Australia's Federal Court alleges that Ms Somanchi downloaded company secrets before she was laid off. She is accused of downloading 40 gigabytes of sensitive documents described in court as being "of very substantial commercial value".

BlueScope is reportedly also pursuing legal action through the Singapore High Court.

Ms Somanchi, a software development manager, had worked for BlueScope for about 12 years before she was axed. She was later employed in Singapore for a joint venture between Japanese steel giant Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corporation and BlueScope.

She is accused of using the downloaded information while working in her new position.

Ms Somanchi, who is said to be 45 years old, has not publicly commented on the allegations.

The Federal Court last week ordered her to disclose to an independent lawyer the whereabouts of a series of items, including documents and computer codes.

She was ordered to hand over storage devices which hold the files, along with e-mails and passwords, and was barred from copying, transmitting or transferring them.

BlueScope, a major supplier of steel products which employs about 16,000 people, told the court it was concerned about "the possibility of Ms Somanchi destroying or concealing evidence".

The court said it was satisfied that the confidential information was "of very substantial commercial value to BlueScope, which has enabled BlueScope to achieve significant efficiencies".

"I am satisfied, on the evidence currently before me, that there is a strongly arguable case that… when Ms Somanchi left BlueScope's employment she took with her some of (the firm's intellectual property)," said Justice Mordecai Bromberg.

"I am also satisfied that if the BlueScope IP came into the hands of BlueScope's competitors, BlueScope may face a real risk of significant loss or damage."

Ms Somanchi is accused of downloading "highly sensitive and commercially valuable" information, especially relating to BlueScope's products involving sheds.

The downloads were said to have been made during a four-year period before she was made redundant last June. She reportedly delayed her redundancy meeting for two hours, downloading a set of confidential codes in that time.

Ms Somanchi has been employed in Singapore as an innovation manager by NS BlueScope, the joint venture, since about November.

According to Fairfax Media, NS BlueScope planned to sack her this week and give her a one-way ticket back to Australia.

Her lawyer in Singapore, Mr Ng Lip Chih, told Fairfax Media last Saturday: "In view of the fact that the legal proceedings are ongoing, we are not in the position to provide any comments on the matter."

BlueScope has accused Ms Somanchi of using the information to secure her job in Singapore. It reportedly believes she has already transferred 148 BlueScope files to her computers in Singapore.

In an affidavit seen by Fairfax Media, BlueScope sales manager Scott Perks said: "I can think of no legitimate reason why Ms Somanchi would have the... BlueScope files... other than to leverage off BlueScope intellectual property and confidential information for her own professional advantage."

This article was first published on Jan 12, 2016.
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