While economic espionage is conducted or orchestrated by governments and is international in scope, industrial or corporate espionage is more often national and occurs between companies or corporations.
Forms of economic and industrial espionage
Economic or industrial espionage takes place in two main forms. In short, the purpose of espionage is to gather knowledge about (an) organization(s). It may include the acquisition of intellectual property, such as information on industrial manufacture, ideas, techniques and processes, recipes and formulas. Or it could include sequestration of proprietary or operational information, such as that on customer datasets, pricing, sales, marketing, research and development, policies, prospective bids, planning or marketing strategies or the changing compositions and locations of production. It may describe activities such as theft of trade secrets, bribery, blackmail and technological surveillance. As well as orchestrating espionage on commercial organizations, governments can also be targets — for example, to determine the terms of a tender for a government contract.
Economic and industrial espionage is most commonly associated with technology-heavy industries, including computer software and hardware, biotechnology, aerospace, telecommunications, transportation and engine technology, automobiles, machine tools, energy, materials and coatings and so on. Silicon Valley is known to be one of the world's most targeted areas for espionage, though any industry with information of use to competitors may be a target.
Information theft and sabotage
Information can make the difference between success and failure; if a trade secret is stolen, the competitive playing field is leveled or even tipped in favor of a competitor. Although a lot of information-gathering is accomplished legally through competitive intelligence, at times corporations feel the best way to get information is to take it. Economic or industrial espionage is a threat to any business whose livelihood depends on information.
In recent years, economic or industrial espionage has taken on an expanded definition. For instance, attempts to sabotage a corporation may be considered industrial espionage; in this sense, the term takes on the wider connotations of its parent word. That espionage and sabotage (corporate or otherwise) have become more clearly associated with each other is also demonstrated by a number of profiling studies, some government, some corporate. The United States government currently has a polygraph examination entitled the "Test of Espionage and Sabotage" (TES), contributing to the notion of the interrelationship between espionage and sabotage countermeasures. In practice, particularly by "trusted insiders", they are generally considered functionally identical for the purpose of informing countermeasures.
Agents and the process of collection
Economic or industrial espionage commonly occurs in one of two ways. Firstly, a dissatisfied employee appropriates information to advance interests or to damage the company. Secondly, a competitor or foreign government seeks information to advance its own technological or financial interest. "Moles", or trusted insiders, are generally considered the best sources for economic or industrial espionage. Historically known as a "patsy", an insider can be induced, willingly or under duress, to provide information. A patsy may be initially asked to hand over inconsequential information and, once compromised by committing a crime, bribed into handing over more sensitive material. Individuals may leave one company to take up employment with another and take sensitive information with them. Such apparent behavior has been the focus of numerous industrial espionage cases that have resulted in legal battles. Some countries hire individuals to do spying rather than use of their own intelligence agencies. Academics, business delegates, and students are often thought to be used by governments in gathering information. Some countries, such as Japan, have been reported to expect students be debriefed on returning home. A spy may follow a guided tour of a factory and then get "lost". A spy could be an engineer, a maintenance man, a cleaner, an insurance salesman, or an inspector: anyone who has legitimate access to the premises.
A spy may break into the premises to steal data and may search through waste paper and refuse, known as "dumpster diving". Information may be compromised via unsolicited requests for information, marketing surveys or use of technical support or research or software facilities. Outsourced industrial producers may ask for information outside the agreed-upon contract.
Computers have facilitated the process of collecting information because of the ease of access to large amounts of information through physical contact or the Internet.
Use of computers and the Internet
Computers have become key in exercising industrial espionage due to the enormous amount of information they contain and the ease at which it can be copied and transmitted. The use of computers for espionage increased rapidly in the 1990s. Information has commonly been stolen by individuals posing as subsidiary workers, such as cleaners or repairmen, gaining access to unattended computers and copying information from them. Laptops were, and still are, a prime target, with those traveling abroad on business being warned not to leave them for any period of time. Perpetrators of espionage have been known to find many ways of conning unsuspecting individuals into parting, often only temporarily, from their possessions, enabling others to access and steal information. A "bag-op" refers to the use of hotel staff to access data, such as through laptops, in hotel rooms. Information may be stolen in transit, in taxis, at airport baggage counters, baggage carousels, on trains and so on.
The rise of the internet and computer networks has expanded the range and detail of information available and the ease of access for the purpose of industrial espionage. Worldwide, around 50,000 companies a day are thought to come under cyberattack with the rate estimated as doubling each year. This type of operation is generally identified as state backed or sponsored, because the "access to personal, financial or analytic resources" identified exceed that which could be accessed by cybercriminals or individual hackers. Sensitive military or defense engineering or other industrial information may not have immediate monetary value to criminals, compared with, say, bank details. Analysis of cyberattacks suggests deep knowledge of networks, with targeted attacks, obtained by numerous individuals operating in a sustained organized way.
Opportunities for sabotage
The rising use of the internet has also extended opportunities for industrial espionage with the aim of sabotage. In the early 2000s, it was noticed that energy companies were increasingly coming under attack from hackers. Energy power systems, doing jobs like monitoring power grids or water flow, once isolated from the other computer networks, were now being connected to the internet, leaving them more vulnerable, having historically few built-in security features. The use of these methods of industrial espionage have increasingly become a concern for governments, due to potential attacks by terrorist groups or hostile foreign governments.
One of the means of perpetrators conducting industrial espionage is by exploiting vulnerabilities in computer software. Malware and spyware as "a tool for industrial espionage", in "transmitting digital copies of trade secrets, customer plans, future plans and contacts". Newer forms of malware include devices which surreptitiously switch on mobile phones camera and recording devices. In attempts to tackle such attacks on their intellectual property, companies are increasingly keeping important information off network, leaving an "air gap", with some companies building "Faraday cages" to shield from electromagnetic or cellphone transmissions.
Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack
The distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack uses compromised computer systems to orchestrate a flood of requests on the target system, causing it to shut down and deny service to other users. It could potentially be used for economic or industrial espionage with the purpose of sabotage. This method was allegedly utilized by Russian secret services, over a period of two weeks on a cyberattack on Estonia in May 2007, in response to the removal of a Soviet era war memorial.
Economic and industrial espionage has a long history. Father Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles in Jingdezhen, China revealing the manufacturing methods of Chinese porcelain in 1712 to Europe is sometimes considered an early case of industrial espionage.
Historical accounts have been written of industrial espionage between Britain and France. Attributed to Britain's emergence as an "industrial creditor", the second decade of the 18th century saw the emergence of a large-scale state-sponsored effort to surreptitiously take British industrial technology to France. Witnesses confirmed both the inveigling of tradespersons abroad and the placing of apprentices in England. Protests by those such as iron workers in Sheffield and steel workers in Newcastle, about skilled industrial workers being enticed abroad, led to the first English legislation aimed at preventing this method of economic and industrial espionage.
The 20th century
East-West commercial development opportunities after World War I saw a rise in Soviet interest in American and European manufacturing know-how, exploited by Amtorg Corporation. Later, with Western restrictions on the export of items thought likely to increase military capabilities to the USSR, Soviet industrial espionage was a well known adjunct to other spying activities up until the 1980s. BYTE reported in April 1984, for example, that although the Soviets sought to develop their own microelectronics, their technology appeared to be several years behind the West's. Soviet CPUs required multiple chips and appeared to be close or exact copies of American products such as the Intel 3000 and DEC LSI-11/2.
Some of these activities were directed via the East German Stasi (Ministry for State Security). One such operation, "Operation Brunnhilde," operated from the mid-1950s until early 1966 and made use of spies from many Communist Bloc countries. Through at least 20 forays, many western European industrial secrets were compromised. One member of the "Brunnhilde" ring was a Swiss chemical engineer, Dr. Jean Paul Soupert (also known as "Air Bubble"), living in Brussels. He was described by Peter Wright in Spycatcher as having been "doubled" by the Belgian Sûreté de l'État. He revealed information about industrial espionage conducted by the ring, including the fact that Russian agents had obtained details of Concorde's advanced electronics system. He testified against two Kodak employees, living and working in Britain, during a trial in which they were accused of passing information on industrial processes to him, though they were eventually acquitted.
Soviet spetsinformatsiya system
A secret report from the Military-Industrial Commission of the USSR (VPK), from 1979–80, detailed how spetsinformatsiya (Russian: специнформация i.e. "special records") could be utilised in twelve different military industrial areas. Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Philip Hanson detailed a spetsinformatsiya system in which 12 industrial branch ministries formulated requests for information to aid technological development in their military programs. Acquisition plans were described as operating on 2 year and 5 year cycles with about 3000 tasks under way each year. Efforts were aimed at civilian as well as military industrial targets, such as in the petrochemical industries. Some information was garnered so as to compare levels of competitor to Soviet technological advancement. Much unclassified information was also gathered, blurring the boundary with "competitive intelligence".
The Soviet military was recognised as making much better use of acquired information, compared to civilian industry, where their record in replicating and developing industrial technology was poor.
The legacy of Cold War espionage
Following the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, commentators, including the US Congressional Intelligence Committee, noted a redirection amongst the espionage community from military to industrial targets, with Western and former communist countries making use of "underemployed" spies and expanding programs directed at stealing such information. The legacy of Cold War spying included not just the redirection of personnel but the use of spying apparatus such as computer databases, scanners for eavesdropping, spy satellites, bugs and wires.
France and the United States
Between 1987 and 1989, IBM and Texas Instruments were thought to have been targeted by French spies with the intention of helping France's Groupe Bull. In 1993, U.S. aerospace companies were also thought to have been targeted by French interests. During the early 1990s, France was described as one of the most aggressive pursuers of espionage to garner foreign industrial and technological secrets. France accused the U.S. of attempting to sabotage its high tech industrial base. The government of France has been alleged to have conducted ongoing industrial espionage against American aerodynamics and satellite companies.
In 1993, car manufacturer Opel, the German division of General Motors, accused Volkswagen of industrial espionage after Opel's chief of production, Jose Ignacio Lopez, and seven other executives moved to Volkswagen. Volkswagen subsequently threatened to sue for defamation, resulting in a four-year legal battle. The case, which was finally settled in 1997, resulted in one of the largest settlements in the history of industrial espionage, with Volkswagen agreeing to pay General Motors $100 million and to buy at least $1 billion of car parts from the company over 7 years, although it did not explicitly apologize for Lopez's behavior.
Hilton and Starwood
In April 2009 the US based hospitality company Starwood accused its rival Hilton of a "massive" case of industrial espionage. After being purchased by private equity group Blackstone, Hilton employed 10 managers and executives from Starwood. Under intense pressure to improve profits, Starwood accused Hilton of stealing corporate information relating to its luxury brand concepts, used in setting up its own Denizen hotels. Specifically, former head of its luxury brands group, Ron Klein, was accused of downloading "truckloads of documents" from a laptop to his personal email account.
Google and Operation Aurora
On 13 January 2010, Google announced that operators, from within China, had hacked into their Google China operation, stealing intellectual property and, in particular, accessing the email accounts of human rights activists. The attack was thought to have been part of a more widespread cyber attack on companies within China which has become known as Operation Aurora. Intruders were thought to have launched a zero-day attack, exploiting a weakness in the Microsoft Internet Explorer browser, the malware used being a modification of the trojan "Hydraq". Concerned about the possibility of hackers taking advantage of this previously unknown weakness in Internet Explorer, the governments of Germany and, subsequently France, issued warnings not to use the browser.
There was speculation that "insiders" had been involved in the attack, with some Google China employees being denied access to the company's internal networks after the company's announcement. In February 2010, computer experts from the U.S. National Security Agency claimed that the attacks on Google probably originated from two Chinese universities associated with expertise in computer science, Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Shandong Lanxiang Vocational School, the latter having close links to the Chinese military.
Google claimed at least 20 other companies had also been targeted in the cyber attack, said by the London Times, to have been part of an "ambitious and sophisticated attempt to steal secrets from unwitting corporate victims" including "defence contractors, finance and technology companies". Rather than being the work of individuals or organised criminals, the level of sophistication of the attack was thought to have been "more typical of a nation state". Some commentators speculated as to whether the attack was part of what is thought to be a concerted Chinese industrial espionage operation aimed at getting "high-tech information to jump-start China's economy". Critics pointed to what was alleged to be a lax attitude to the intellectual property of foreign businesses in China, letting them operate but then seeking to copy or reverse engineer their technology for the benefit of Chinese "national champions". In Google's case, they may have (also) been concerned about the possible misappropriation of source code or other technology for the benefit of Chinese rival Baidu. In March 2010 Google subsequently decided to cease offering censored results in China, leading to the closing of its Chinese operation.
CyberSitter and Green Dam
The US based firm CyberSitter announced in January 2010 that it was suing the Chinese government, and other US companies, for stealing its anti pornography software, with the accusation that it had been incorporated into China's Green Dam program, which was used by the state to censor children's internet access. CyberSitter accused Green Dam creators of copying around 3000 lines of code. They were described as having done 'a sloppy job of copying,' with some lines of the copied code continuing to direct people to the CyberSitter website. The attorney acting for CyberSitter maintained "I don't think I have ever seen such clear-cut stealing".
USA v. Lan Lee, et al.
The United States charged two former NetLogic Inc. engineers, Lan Lee and Yuefei Ge, of committing economic espionage against TSMC and NetLogic, Inc. A jury acquitted the defendants of the charges with regard to TSMC and deadlocked on the charges with regard to NetLogic. In May 2010, a federal judge dismissed all the espionage charges against the two defendants. The judge ruled that the U.S. government presented no evidence of espionage.
Dongxiao Yue and Chordiant Software, Inc.
In May 2010, the federal jury convicted Chordiant Software, Inc., a U.S. corporation, of stealing Dongxiao Yue's JRPC technologies and used them in a product called Chordiant Marketing Director. Yue previously filed lawsuits against Symantec Corporation for a similar theft.
Concerns of national governments
Revelations from the Snowden documents have provided information to the effect that the United States, notably vis-à-vis the NSA, has been conducting aggressive economic espionage against Brazil. Canadian intelligence has apparently supported U.S. economic espionage efforts.
A recent report to the US government, by aerospace and defense company Northrop Grumman, describes Chinese economic espionage as comprising "the single greatest threat to U.S. technology". Blogging on the 2009 cyber attack on Google, Joe Stewart of Secureworks referred to a "persistent campaign of 'espionage-by-malware' emanating from the People’s Republic of China (PRC)" with both corporate and state secrets being "Shanghaied" over the past 5 or 6 years. The Northrop Grumann report states that the collection of US defense engineering data through cyberattack is regarded as having "saved the recipient of the information years of R&D and significant amounts of funding". Concerns about the extent of cyberattacks on the US emanating from China has led to the situation being described as the dawn of a "new cold cyberwar". In response to these and other reports, Amitai Etzioni of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies has suggested that China and the United States should agree to a policy of mutually assured restraint with respect to cyberspace. This would involve allowing both states to take the measures they deem necessary for their self-defense while simultaneously agreeing to refrain from taking offensive steps; it would also entail vetting these commitments.
In December 2007, it was revealed that Jonathan Evans, head of the United Kingdom's MI5, had sent out confidential letters to 300 chief executives and security chiefs at the country's banks, accountants and legal firms warning of attacks from Chinese 'state organisations'. A summary was also posted on the secure website of the Centre for the Protection of the National Infrastructure, accessed by some of the nation's 'critical infrastructure' companies, including 'telecoms firms, banks and water and electricity companies'. One security expert warned about the use of 'custom trojans,' software specifically designed to hack into a particular firm and feed back data. Whilst China was identified as the country most active in the use of internet spying, up to 120 other countries were said to be using similar techniques. The Chinese government responded to UK accusations of economic espionage by saying that the report of such activities was 'slanderous' and that the government opposed hacking which is prohibited by law.
In Operation Eikonal German BND agents received "selector lists" from the NSA – search terms for their dragnet surveillance. They contain IP addresses, mobile phone numbers and email accounts with the BND surveillance system containing hundreds of thousands and possibly more than a million such targets. These lists have been subject of controversy as in 2008 it was revealed that they contained some terms targeting the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), the Eurocopter project as well as French administration, which were first noticed by BND employees in 2005. After the revelations made by whistleblower Edward Snowden the BND decided to investigate the issue whose October 2013 conclusion was that at least 2,000 of these selectors were aimed at Western European or even German interests which has been a violation of the Memorandum of Agreement that the US and Germany signed in 2002 in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. After reports emerged in 2014 that EADS and Eurocopter had been surveillance targets the Left Party and the Greens filed an official request to obtain evidence of the violations.
The BND's project group charged with supporting the NSA investigative committee in German parliament set up in spring 2014, reviewed the selectors and discovered 40,000 suspicious search parameters, including espionage targets in Western European governments and numerous companies. The group also confirmed suspicions that the NSA had systematically violated German interests and concluded that the Americans could have perpetrated economic espionage directly under the Germans' noses. The investigative parliamentary committee was not granted access to the NSA's selectors list as an appeal led by opposition politicians failed at Germany's top court. Instead the ruling coalition appointed an administrative judge, Kurt Graulich, as a "person of trust" who was granted access to the list and briefed the investigative commission on its contents after analyzing the 40,000 parameters. In his almost 300-paged report Graulich concluded that European government agencies were targeted massively and that Americans hence broke contractual agreements. He also found that German targets which received special protection from surveillance of domestic intelligence agencies by Germany's Basic Law (Grundgesetz) − including numerous enterprises based in Germany – were featured in the NSA's wishlist in a surprising plenitude.
Competitive intelligence and economic or industrial espionage
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- Comparing Insider IT Sabotage and Espionage: A Model-Based Analysis
- Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations
- Spooky Business: U.S. Corporations Enlist Ex-Intelligence Agents to Spy on Nonprofit Groups
- Pt 2: U.S. Corporations Enlist Ex-Intelligence Agents to Spy on Nonprofit Groups
- Corporate Espionage Undermines Democracy
- Intelligence Online – Investigative news and reporting on industrial espionage and business intelligence (subscription and pay-per-article site)