The Word Among Us

August 2010 Issue

Sweeter than Revenge

A Tale of Industrial Espionage

By: Les Cowie

Sweeter than Revenge: A Tale of Industrial Espionage by Les Cowie

It’s one thing to meditate on “love your enemies” when life is going smoothly. But how relevant is Christ’s command when you are consumed with anger, surrounded by aggressive attorneys, and wish you could throw someone in jail? Can you even hear his call to forgive? This is the question that confronted me in July 2009.

I work for a company and Web-based service that is the leading provider of information helping people to do business through online retail stores. Our service is valued by such well-known Internet organizations as Amazon Services, eBay, Yahoo!, Intuit, and UPS.

A critical part of our company’s perceived value is its exclusive database. The information it contains took almost nine years to obtain, at a cost of around $4.5 million and much hard work. We were building the company with a view to selling it at a favorable price when our hopes were suddenly jeopardized.

A competing company hacked through our firewalls and got into our Web site. Forty percent of our database was copied before we detected the problem. Then this company displayed the stolen information blatantly, in exactly the same format, on its new Web site and started selling against us.

Righteous Anger? Our information technology team tracked down the perpetrator and proved without a shadow of doubt that a crime was being committed and that the competitor was based in Utah. Our attorneys were delighted by these findings. You could see dollar signs reflected in their wide eyes and smiles. They advised us that we could sue for a million dollars in damages. The FBI’s Internet Crime Unit confirmed that we were dealing with a Federal felony.

Meanwhile, anger was growing in me. I was not a stockholder in the company. My role was to find a buyer once we decided to sell. I had been expecting a sizable commission, which depended on securing the highest market value. Consequently, I stood to lose a great deal if its value declined.

My anger increased tenfold when the company’s stockholders declined to begin a lawsuit. They feared that the cost of legal fees would escalate rapidly and that our competitor would find a way to use the stolen information anyway.

The anger, by the way, seemed to reside comfortably with my daily devotions. Why not? This was a business crime and a felony! Didn’t I have a right to feel indignant?

Enter Philemon. In the midst of it all, I was invited to speak at a conference in Utah. What an opportunity! I would find the hacker who had stolen our information and tell him just how severely he would be punished for his crime.

My flight was scheduled for a Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after my weekly “Bible breakfast” meeting with my Catholic men’s group. On Monday evening, the group leader called to ask whether I could lead the next day’s discussion, since he was away. I was surprised—others in the group seemed a more logical choice—but I agreed.

Our reading that Tuesday was from the Book of Philemon: a single letter from St. Paul asking Philemon, a wealthy landowner, to forgive a runaway servant who had stolen from him. Apparently, under Roman law at the time, Philemon had the right to claim the culprit’s life. Paul implored him to show mercy instead and to take back the slave as “a brother.” He even called the runaway “his son”!

Very quickly, I became uncomfortable with our discussion. I prompted others to respond but said nothing until challenged about my own thoughts. Then I spilled the story of the “industrial espionage.” Opinions ranged between “you have to shut him down” to “Christ asks you to show his love and compassion.” I left the meeting feeling angrier than ever.

Sweet Revenge. In Utah, I shared our story with the CEO of an associate business. He replied that he knew the perpetrator well and was willing to invite him to his offices. I decided to confront him there.

The next day, a young man presented himself in the board room where I sat waiting. It took all my control not to punch him on sight. I had prayed for the Lord’s help in the meeting. I asked that the Spirit would guide my heart and my words. I wanted to perform as well as our most aggressive attorney.

Since I did not want to directly accuse the man of a felony, I began by asking if he knew anyone else of the same name who lived and worked in the area. He did not.

“I would like to meet that person,” I said, and went on to describe what the perpetrator had done. “I want to look him in the eye and ask how he will feel when the lawsuit goes public and the FBI prosecutes the crime.” I explained that it would be a million-dollar civil lawsuit with a three- to five-year jail sentence. I outlined the strengths of the proof in hand.

“I wonder how that person’s wife will feel when she takes the kids to school after the crime goes public?” I continued. “How will he handle going to his religious services every Sunday?”

I gave a devastating performance and was very pleased with myself.

Even Sweeter. The young man’s face went pale, and he suddenly broke down in uncontrollable sobs. In front of a witness, he opened up and gave the full story, revealing names and details of the crime. Not only did I have him on the hook, but the people behind him as well! I felt absolutely triumphant.

And then it happened.

Without any warning, an indescribable calm descended on me. It was like being wrapped in a warm, invisible cloud. I looked over at the sobbing young man and felt immense compassion. Then I felt myself lifted out of my chair. I walked up to the young man, took his hand to shake it and then reached out and held him in a strong hug. He looked up at me astonished.

Somewhat astonished as well, I found myself saying: “At a Bible breakfast on Tuesday morning, I read the Book of Philemon, and it’s all about forgiveness. I am instructed to tell you that God loves you and forgives you. Christ is giving you a second chance at life and giving you the opportunity to really become the person you deserve to be.”

I sat down, still basking in the feeling of warmth that embraced me. I continued: “We will not prosecute you and destroy your life and your family’s life. You now have two choices. Either you remove and destroy the information you have stolen or you meet with my attorneys and turn State’s witness against your company’s stockholders.”

Seven days later, our experts confirmed to our attorneys that the information had been removed from the competitor’s Web site.

Truly Rich. The confrontation was a turning point for that young man. He and I have stayed in touch, and I know that his life has changed. He is reconciled with our Father through Christ’s redemption and the help of the Holy Spirit, and he gives God the glory.

My life has changed, too. For many years, I had prayed that I would hear God’s voice and that Jesus would reveal himself, but I did not think that God ever spoke to me. I had never really realized how near and accessible God always is. Now I know that Jesus and the Holy Spirit not only talk to me, they also act in my life. I wouldn’t trade this outcome for anything—not even a million-dollar settlement! n

Les Cowie is a member of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Maitland, Florida.