A colleague recently had the hard drive from his desktop computer completely erased by an intruder who went to his locked office on a day when his university was closed for a holiday. There was nothing of obvious value on the hard drive -- just manuscripts, proposals, presentations, data, images and so on. That is, just his work.
Everything was backed up, so nothing was lost, but even so, it was an evil act. There's no way to know what the malicious person did before erasing all the files and installing a new (pirated) operating system, but the IT people were able to determine that the computer was accessed at least 4 times. I would not be surprised if files were copied.
Years ago, an intruder copied files from my desktop computer. The computer was in my locked office, and the intruder copied the files late at night on a weekend. The files were of the usual academic sorts -- papers, proposals, data and so on, as well as email files that were saved on my computer.
There are many possible motives for this type of malicious behavior: outright theft of intellectual property for personal gain, a desire to inflict severe inconvenience, or an attempt to find some confidential or embarrassing information. When my files were copied and I had a meeting with an associate dean about the situation, she told me that she had dealt with cases like this before. Furthermore, she also dealt with cases in which someone placed incriminating materials (e.g., child pornography) on someone else's computer. Who are these people?
When my files were stolen (copied), the chair and deans were sympathetic to my situation, but it was very difficult for me to convince them that this theft of intellectual property required them to take action against the thief to try to retrieve the stolen information. The type of research I do has no commercial value, and will not result in patents. The same is true for my colleague who more recently had his hard drive compromised.
In my case, the thief also took some research materials that had been purchased with a grant from a federal funding agency. I contacted the university legal office to see what my options were for trying to retrieve my tangible and intellectual property, although I didn't have a clear idea how to retrieve the latter. The thief had made copies of files, so I didn't lose any intellectual property, and the research materials that were taken had a value of about $1000. Small change for a university.
One of the lawyers in the university counsel's office wrote a strongly worded letter to the thief, who had been proven beyond a doubt to have possession of my files and other research materials and who had by that point been fired from the university. I saw a draft of the letter before it was to be sent, and did not find it particularly compelling, but at least it recognized that someone had done something wrong. But then the letter was never actually sent because the university counsel balked out of concern that it would appear that the university was harassing someone who had not actually stolen anything of value to the university. What if the thief got upset by the letter and sued? Then the university would have to spend more than the cost of a piece of letterhead and a postage stamp, and that would not be worth it.
Nothing of value was taken, just my work.
I have written before about people who borrow (steal) ideas from proposals or talks, but somehow it is worse when someone physically breaks into your office and takes stuff, even if the result is about the same.
How do you put a value on basic research? You can't. I bring in grants (+ indirect costs) and I support students and pay their tuition, so I could put a number on how much money I contribute to the university. My research materials, however -- my ideas, my proposals, my manuscripts, and my teaching files -- have no street value.
Does that mean anyone can break into my office in the dead of night and help themselves to whatever they want as long as they don't take anything of actual worth (e.g. computers, research equipment, my first edition of Flattened Fauna)? Sometimes it seems that way. Of course, anyone who does that will be fired and will have to move to the ends of the Earth, but at least they will have my old manuscript drafts to keep them company. Those, of course, are priceless.
10 months ago