By almost any definition, J. Craig Venter is a really smart guy. Which makes the incredibly dumb thing he’s accused of doing so puzzling.
A biology researcher, Venter became a science geek hero for his role in mapping the human genome in 2001, and was twice named to Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. In 2014, he was named the first CEO of Human Longevity, a startup in San Diego, California, aimed at using genetic information to create personalized health care.
After a falling out with the Human Longevity board in May, Venter left the company. He didn’t, however, return the company laptop he was using, and instead allegedly used it to email the company’s secrets, according to a lawsuit Human Longevity filed on July 20 in federal court alleging misappropriation of trade secrets, among other claims. According to the complaint:
“Even after his HLI (Human Longevity Inc.) termination, Venter used the HLI computer accessed and sent HLI proprietary information and trade secrets. … Venter also continued to communicate with an HLI Board member and invited him to his home in Nantucket using the HLI computer.”
Human Longevity accuses Venter of meeting with at least nine of its employees, and convincing at least one to join him a the J. Craig Venter Institute, the research nonprofit he founded in 1992. The company also says he is trying to establish a competing business, and solicit funds from Human Longevity’s list of potential donors. The Venter Institute didn’t respond to an email from Quartz at Work asking for comment.
Whatever Venter’s reasons for continuing to use the company laptop—a Lenovo Thinkpad X1, according to the suit—Human Longevity says he had plenty of warning about the consequences. As an employee, he signed an agreement stating that he had no expectation of privacy using company email, and that it could be monitored “at any time without notice.” Additionally, Human Longevity says it had elaborate security precautions in place to protect its data.
While most office workers understand in principle that our bosses can read our emails and monitor our web usage, most of us don’t act like it. We continue to play fantasy sports, check horoscopes, complain about managers, and even look for other jobs on our company computers—almost always without incident—because we believe there’s only a very small chance that our employer is actively eavesdropping.
Generally, that’s a reasonable assumption. In most cases, companies save employee emails in the off-chance they’ll need them later, and only monitor them if they suspect something’s up. A CEO leaving under a cloud and not returning his company laptop just might qualify.
Update: The J. Craig Venter Institute emailed the following statement: “The claims made by Human Longevity Inc. (HLI) are baseless, without merit and contain numerous factual errors. HLI is one of many companies to have been spun out of the not-for-profit research efforts of the J. Craig Venter Institute and its founder, J. Craig Venter, a renowned genomics pioneer who remains a shareholder in HLI. We intend to vigorously defend against these allegations as the legal process advances.”