Raytheon Corp. has sued 21 people for allegedly disclosing company secrets via the Internet in a case that raises questions about the wisdom of chatting about your employer online.
Raytheon officials believe the defendants work for the defense giant and have asked Yahoo Inc. to identify the real names behind the electronic handles. Yahoo runs the chat group in question.
''We are committed to and take seriously our responsibility to protect proprietary information,'' Raytheon spokeswoman Toni Simonetti said Thursday. ''We'll take legal action necessary to that.''
A spokeswoman for Santa Clara, Calif.-based Yahoo said the company will comply with a subpoena if one is issued, but otherwise won't disclose a user's identification.
''We have very, very strict privacy policies,'' spokeswoman Diane Hunt said. ''We're careful not to just give out user information.''
The case underscores a difficulty with Internet chat groups, which encourage the kinds of conversations that might take place after work in a bar. But the electronic message boards create an illusion of privacy that can embolden people to broadcast their thoughts all over the world.
In the case of Raytheon, a $19.5 billion company with 100,000 employees, online messages were allegedly posted by workers who assumed such screen names as RSCDeepthroat, SadNTexas and snowbaw198.
The messages revealed what Raytheon claims are company secrets, mostly about manpower projections and financial issues. In the complaint filed in Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge last month, Raytheon said the workers violated employment agreements not to disclose confidential information.
But much of the information revealed in the chat group was either speculative, inaccurate or already public.
One participant was cited for writing on Oct. 21 that the company sold one of its units to DRS Technologies for $45 million. Raytheon had already made the deal public that day.
Another posted a message in April saying ''Raytheon win Missle-defense contract. Good news will be announce tomorrow.'' A competitor actually won the deal.
Raytheon is asking for an injunction against the chatters preventing further disclosure of company secrets, compensatory damages and attorney fees and expenses. That worried some.
''It seems kind of disturbing that a company would check up on employees this way,'' said Scott Charnas, an attorney who works for a law firm specializing in labor law and is not involved in the case.
Charnas said he didn't know of any statute preventing Yahoo from disclosing the names of its chat group members.
''There may be an expectation of privacy when people sign on with these screen names, but that's probably a false expectation,'' said Charnas.
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