Stop talking about your confidential research in public!

Is this what CSOs wear to breakfast? :)
Is this what CSOs wear to breakfast? 🙂

Sometimes being part of a minority gender in IT is really beneficial.  There’s always plenty of people wanting to talk to you at conferences (and never a queue for the toilets!) and it can be quite nice being a novelty.  Also, on just about every business trip I go on, I’m reminded of the fact that when people see me, they don’t expect me to be in IT, let alone have a senior position.  Today, I had to laugh as a couple of businessmen on the table next to me gave me a lot of detail about their company confidential research that is directly useful to what I’m doing.

Fistly, I didn’t need over 5 years as CTO/CIO to learn the basics of business security.  Anyone in the industry knows that you don’t go blabbing confidential information in public, or do they?  It’s one of the easiest ways of social engineering – hang around in bars, coffee shops etc near an office that interests you and overhear what you can.  Some of it may be useful.

So it always surprises me when businessmen go out of their way to talk about work in public.  Sometimes you just pick up the odd customer name, sometimes it’s trash talk about a colleague or senior, sometimes it’s performance figures.  But sometimes, it’s really interesting detail about their research and development.

I’m currently in the wrong timezone with work and I’d been fully awake since 3.30am local time watching video recorded from this year’s MLConf and my brain was fully into thinking about some new techniques to apply when I’m back with my new team in the UK.  One of the fantastic things about this was that when the fire alarm went off at 5.30am1, I was fully alert and dressed unlike the majority of other guests in the hotel.  As we all went back to our rooms after the all clear, the two men in front of me started talking about some machine learning techniques.  As my brain was tuned to this already, I couldn’t help but overhear 5 minutes of their conversation until we ended up on different floors.  There was nothing confidential in this bit, but it was nice to hear that there was someone else in the hotel doing the same work as me.  Had I been staying another day then I might have found them and introduced myself and talked about it a bit more openly.  As it was, I went back to my room and cleared down the emails from the UK until the buffet opened at 6am.

Once settled in the restaurant with my fifth cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast, I sat reading my kindle and pretty much ignoring the rest of the guests until I heard a the tail end of the sentence “improve the recognition with the AI” and my ears pricked up again.  I looked up and while the restaurant was by no means full, the same two men I’d followed after the fire alarm were sat a table away.  Over the next half hour, while I had a leisurely breakfast, they proceeded to discuss details of their system, the problems they were facing, how it was implemented and even one of the patents they were hoping to get (although weren’t ready to apply for yet).  The only thing I didn’t get was the company name!

Maybe if I’d been wearing my own suit rather than my more comfortable travel clothes, they might have recognised me as a business woman and been more careful.  Maybe if I’d brought my laptop down to breakfast they might have guessed I was involved in technology.  Maybe if I’d chosen to wear one of my many AI t-shirts to travel in rather than my FatFace flowery top, they’d have known I knew what they were talking about.  Did they see me as someone who wouldn’t be interested in their conversation and therefore felt happy talking freely in front of me?  Or were they really that blissfully unaware that they’d have had the same conversation even if I was fully suited with my laptop and a big sign saying “Hey, I’m listening to your confidential research”2?  I’m not sure which is worse!

Be mindful of what you say in public.  The girl with the raspberry nail polish and the flowery top on the next table might actually be the Chief Science Officer of a company doing the same as you, and could get that patent filed first…
  1. Fortunately a false alarm.
  2. Maybe I ought to get a T-Shirt printed with that on 😉

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.