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'Chat' Posts Lead To Lawsuit

Defense contractor Raytheon Corp. is suing 21 people for allegedly disclosing company secrets via the Internet. Raytheon officials believe the online chatters work for the company, and have asked Yahoo Inc. to identify the real names behind the electronic handles.

Yahoo runs the offending chat group, but isn't eager to unmask its clientele.

A spokeswoman for Yahoo, based in Santa Clara, Calif., said the company will comply with a subpoena if one is issued, but otherwise won't disclose a user's identification.

"We have very, very strict privacy policies," spokeswoman Diane Hunt said. "We're careful not to just give out user information."

The case, first reported on by the Boston Herald, underscores a difficulty with Internet chat groups, that encourage the kinds of conversations that might otherwise take place after work in a bar.

The electronic message boards create an illusion of privacy that can embolden people to broadcast their thoughts all over the world. That's exactly what Raytheon wants to keep its employees from doing - at least when it comes to information about the company.

"We are committed to and take seriously our responsibility to protect proprietary information," said Raytheon spokeswoman Toni Simonetti on Thursday. "We'll take legal action necessary to that."

In this case, online messages were allegedly posted by workers who assumed such screen names as RSCDeepthroat, SadNTexas and snowbaw198.

The messages revealed what Raytheon - a $19.5 billion company with 100,000 employees - claims are company secrets, mostly about manpower projections and financial issues.

In the complaint filed in Middlesex Superior Court in Cambridge last month, Raytheon's lawyers claimed the workers violated their employment agreements by disclosing confidential information.

But much of the information revealed was either speculative, inaccurate or already public.

Raytheon cited one chatter who merely conjectured about the company's stock price. "Our stock is in for a further slide to about 35!!," wrote snowbaw198 in September, noting he'd recently sold his stock for $57 a share.

Rayman-mass was cited for writing on Oct. 21 that the company sold one of its units to DRS Technologies for $45 million. Raytheon had already made the deal public that day.

And h1234567 posted a message in April saying "Raytheon win Missle-defense contract. Good news will be announce tomorrow." A competitor actually won the deal.

Raytheon is asking for an injunction to prevent the chatters from disclosing anything else, plus the company wants compensatory damages, attorney fees and expenses.

"It seems kind of disturbing that a company would check up on employees this way," said Scott Charnas, an attorney for a firm specializing in labor law.

Charnas, who is not involved in the case, said he didn't know of any tatute preventing Yahoo from disclosing the names of its chat group members.

"There may be an expectation of privacy when people sign on with these screen names, but that's probably a false expectation."

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