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Christopher Burgess
Contributing Writer

Insider threat becomes reality for Elon Musk

News Analysis
Jun 26, 20184 mins
Investigation and ForensicsSecurity

Tesla sues former employee Martin Tripp for sabotage and intellectual property theft.

Elon Musk
Credit: Toru Hana/Reuters

Every company needs to worry about the insider threat, and Tesla is no exception.

On the  evening of June 17, 2018, Elon Musk emailed his employees advising that the threat posed by a malevolent insider was a reality. Musk elaborated how “a Tesla employee had conducted quite extensive and damaging sabotage to our operations.”

In his email, he implored Tesla employees to work with the company in determining if the employee was operating alone or with confederates inside or outside the company. The unidentified employee (though gender appears to be male), has been identified and interviewed with respect to his actions.

The employee’s access, based on the letter, included the ability to make “direct code changes to the Tesla Manufacturing Operating System under false usernames and exporting large amounts of highly sensitive data to unknown third parties.”

The insider motivation?

What motivated the Tesla insider? The same thing encountered time and time again: revenge. The individual did not receive a promotion he believed he deserved and decided to both sabotage the operations of Tesla and share the company’s intellectual property with third parties.

With whom may this insider have engaged?  

Musk continued how Tesla is a threat to the status quo within the global energy and automotive industry. The implication being there are a great number of entities that may have swallowed their scruples and welcomed the opportunity to take a peek behind the Tesla curtain.

What Tesla employees learned

That insider threat is not limited to the theft of intellectual property. Indeed, setting back a competitor’s advance by sabotaging their forward progress may be enough to allow a window of opportunity to open for the competitor to grab sufficient market share to be viable.

What we know about the Tesla insider

Musk’s letter to his employees has generated as many questions as it answered. A search of Federal court records showed that on June 19, 2018, Tesla brought legal action on a Martin Tripp in the U.S. District Court of Nevada. The court issued a summons to Tripp, a resident of Sparks, Nevada, on June 21, 2018.

The complaint answers some of the questions that come to mind.

  • Who is the employee and where did he work?
    • Martin Tripp appears to be the employee, and he was employed at Tesla’s Nevada Gigafactory. According to Tesla, “the factory’s planned annual battery production capacity is 35 gigawatt-hours (GWh), with one GWh being the equivalent of generating (or consuming) 1 billion watts for one hour.”
  • What is the information stolen? According to the complaint, the trade secrets taken include:
    • Breaching specific provisions of the Proprietary Information Agreement
    • Writing software to hack Tesla’s MOS
    • Exfiltrating confidential and proprietary data from Tesla’s MOS for the purpose of sharing the data with persons outside the company
    • Sending third parties a confidential code or “query”
    • Taking and sharing with third parties dozens of photographs of Tesla’s manufacturing systems
    • Taking and sharing with third parties a video of Tesla’s manufacturing systems
    • Attempting to conceal electronic evidence of his misappropriation and disclosure of trade secrets
  • What methodologies were used by the employee to sabotage and share information?
    • The complaint indicates that the individual “wrote software which caused the production systems to fail. In addition, the employee is alleged to have disseminated false information about the company, for an as yet unidentified purpose.
    • Personal meetings, email, provision of credentials? Not yet determined.

Tesla, wisely, requested the court to order Tripp to allow “inspection of Tripp’s computers, personal USB and electronic storage devices, email accounts, ‘cloud’-based storage accounts and mobile phone call and message history.” The information would allow Tesla investigators to perhaps determine who the identities of any co-workers who assisted Tripp, and possibly the third parties to which he shared or attempted to share Tesla confidential information. 

This case of the trusted insider breaking trust will be one we will keep our eye on as it evolves.

Christopher Burgess
Contributing Writer

Christopher Burgess is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former senior security advisor to Cisco, and has also been a CEO/COO with various startups in the data and security spaces. He served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Cisco gave him a stetson and a bottle of single-barrel Jack upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit, Senior Online Safety.

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