The world of artificial intelligence (AI) surged to the spotlight once again. Not because of how OpenAI’s ChatGPT engine functioned, rather because of the human element involved in the course of commerce. The OpenAI board of directors abruptly fired CEO Sam Altman.  This was followed by a letter signed by 700 of the 770 employees declaring that they would leave the company in support of the fired CEO. Drama at its finest, made more interesting when  it was announced that Altman had been hired by Microsoft.

Microsoft has $10 billion of their money invested in OpenAI The CEO of Microsoft told media on the 19th, “I’m open to both options.” Those options being, Altman returning as CEO and being a part of the Microsoft team. Altman for his part noted how his “priority remains to ensure OpenAI continues to thrive.”

Insider risk enhanced

While the drama unfolds, Joe Payne, CEO of Code42, opined, “OpenAI isn’t just facing a talent exodus – it’s facing a potential loss of IP on an unprecedented scale. History shows that if data isn’t nailed down, people will take it when they leave. Departing employees take sales forecasts, customer lists, payroll data – and most fatal for a company like OpenAI – source code. It’s not hard to guess the motive for data loss in the case of OpenAI, and if employees believe nobody is watching the shop, OpenAI can say goodbye to its competitive edge. It’s pretty easy for employees to put a customer list in Dropbox while working off the corporate network, or push source code via git command to their own personal GitHub account. If OpenAI doesn’t have the right data protections in place, companies like Microsoft could hit paydirt.”

One could posit that Microsoft, as a key investor and partner of OpenAI already had access to all of the OpenAI technology and know-how, and ignore the salient point of Payne’s precise observation. Let’s not do that, let’s take it on board.

Companies in every sector have experienced scenarios where business decisions are made and the axe falls in an instant. Surprising not only the employee who finds themself on the street, but oftentimes the rest of the company.  In the OpenAI instance, the board’s abrupt move created a scenario which would tax any insider risk management program — with a swish of a pen, they brought a workforce from cordial to angered.

Onboarding caution

The cause and effect of the Altman firing is the creation of 700 self-declared disgruntled employees out of a population of 770.  Clearly when the dust settles many will choose to stay, some will opt to leave OpenAI and land with other companies within the AI space. Those finding new employment can be expected to be asked two fundamental questions; questions which every new employee should be asked by their employer as part of their onboarding:

  • Declare all intellectual property you claim as your own that you are bringing to this engagement.
  • Attest that you are not bringing any intellectual property belonging to others to this engagement.

Sour milk aftertaste

No doubt the board is observing the unintended consequences of their actions, and the employees now sit with that sour milk aftertaste in their mouths.  Few will argue that the risk was exponentially increased by the way Altman was fired, raising the risk to OpenAI’s intellectual property to a level greater than it was a week ago.  Every company should go to school on this drama.

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Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is an author and speaker on the topic of security strategy. Christopher, served 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. He lived and worked in South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Europe, and Latin America. Upon his retirement, the CIA awarded him the Career Distinguished Intelligence Medal, the highest level of career recognition. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century” (Syngress, March 2008). He is the founder of