Economic Espionage: The Myth That ‘We Have Nothing of Interest’

The idea that your company has nothing of interest or worth stealing — let alone something that falls in the category of economic espionage — is a myth. Additionally, your employees may have been preconditioned to believe they don’t have access to anything sensitive, even though they have unencumbered access to the corporate infrastructure and content.

Sadly, neither your company nor your employees are part of the decision tree to determine the level of interest by nation-states, competitors, criminal elements or untrustworthy insiders and their assessment of the value that lies within your corporate walls. Indeed, you may never know if your company has fallen within the bull’s-eye and is being engaged with for the illicit acquisition of its technology, data sets, intellectual property and the like.

Economic Espionage — What’s That?

The U.S. has laws in place to address economic espionage. According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, this is defined as “the unlawful or clandestine targeting or acquisition of sensitive financial, trade or economic policy information, proprietary economic information or technological information.”

The U.S. government defines economic espionage within the context of the Economic Espionage Act (EEA) of 1996. It noted that “the EEA contains two separate provisions that criminalize the theft or misappropriation of trade secrets. The first provision, codified at 18 U.S.C. § 1831, is directed toward foreign economic espionage and requires that the theft of the trade secret be done to benefit a foreign government, instrumentality or agent. The second provision makes criminal the more common commercial theft of trade secrets, regardless of who benefits.”

The ‘We Have Nothing of Interest’ Myth

Using U.S.-centric data, “The Intellectual Property Commission Report” noted that the value of the intellectual property stolen from American companies is in the “hundreds of billions of dollars a year.” Additionally, the report claimed “intellectual property that is stolen over the Internet constitutes only a portion of total IP theft. Much of it occurs the old-fashioned way. Hard drives are either duplicated on site or physically stolen by bribed employees; … digitized products are pirated and sold illegally; phones are tapped for the purpose of obtaining trade secrets; and email accounts are compromised.”

Employees who think their day-to-day engagement does not include touching intellectual property are woefully mistaken. Items that are useful to the unscrupulous competitor or entity are innumerable. They wish to build their fortune on the back of yours and have many arrows in their quiver from which to choose their avenue of engagement.

Stealing Intellectual Property

The FBI identified a few common tactics with which intellectual property may be stolen. These include:

  • Technological acquisition of information, which may include visitor access to company intranets, spear phishing attacks or the theft of equipment (i.e., laptops, servers, drives);
  • On-site visits during which visitors engage in elicitation, snatch-and-grab theft, unauthorized photography or environmental sample collection;
  • Acquisition of the company’s trash and recyclables, well beyond the dumpster-diving of old;
  • Joint ventures and abandonment once intellectual property and trade secrets have been purloined;
  • Electronic surveillance of company events, off-sites and employees in travel mode.

While a review of the global media would have one believe economic espionage is conducted from within only a few key nations, a deeper look will find that international companies both large and small have experienced the theft of intellectual property, trade secrets and customer lists.

Remember, the entity that wants your information is seeking to advance its own efforts, usurp your brand via counterfeiting, steal your customers or negatively affect their relationship with your company. More simply put, these entities want to put your company out of business. A review of global and local infrastructure, awareness training, anomaly reporting and detection mechanisms are good first steps toward putting in place a counterintelligence or counterespionage program designed to protect the company and the employees.

Christopher Burgess

CEO at Prevendra

Christopher Burgess is the CEO of Prevendra, a security, privacy and intelligence company. He is also an author,...