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Dusting for digital fingerprints

OnTrack Data International hopes corporations and lawyers that require analysis of data evidence will seize on its service.

As theft of sensitive data grows so does the need to dust for culprits' digital fingerprints.

OnTrack Data International hopes to capitalize on that need with a new service, due May 12, aimed at corporations and lawyers that require analysis of data evidence. If a disgruntled ex-employee has illegally copied or stolen electronic data, OnTrack's Computer Evidence Services program, as it is called, will supply clients with expert testimony that can be used to convict the data thief.

Since virtually all important business data, including employee records, inventory lists, and customer databases, is now stored on computers, companies have become more concerned about leaks.

Late last month, an employee at San Francisco-based Levi Strauss and Company walked off with a hard disk containing more than 20,000 employee records, including social security numbers, birth dates, and other data that could be used to apply for credit cards. It remains unclear whether the employee stole the disk drive for the hardware itself or for the data it contained.

Just this week, Novell filed a suit against several former employees who the company alleges stole trade secrets. Police confiscated computers and floppy disks from the employees, although the workers say they didn't steal any code from Novell.

OnTrack can analyze a hard disk to prove whether data was copied from it, the company said.

"We do a lot of work for people who say, 'I just had a salesperson leave and I think they took my entire customer database with them,'" said John Pence, president of OnTrack.

OnTrack's main business is providing data recovery tools for companies that have lost data to computer foul-ups or negligence, not theft. In recent years, though, the company saw demand for expert testimony surge and decided to create a formal service to attract more clients. OnTrack has participated in 20 to 30 legal proceedings for which it charges a client anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000, Pence said.

Not all of the cases OnTrack has worked on involved data theft. Pence said that his company helped a plaintiff win a $7 million settlement in a sexual harassment case against the Pepsi Cola bottling company in Burnsville, Minnesota.

Among her complaints, the plaintiff said she was exposed to offensive video games by other employees. Her coworkers deleted the video games from their computers, but OnTrack proved that the video games had been installed on their systems.

"In discovery, it's always a game of hiding the ball and discovering the ball," said Ken Zirm, a partner at Walter & Haverfield, a law firm in Cleveland, Ohio. "As more and more data is stored on computers it's necessary to have a tool to get at the data during discovery."