Who Commits Industrial Espionage

In a recent post I shared some of the details behind a Chinese firm’s attempts to conduct industrial espionage against US cell phone company T-Mobile. Most firms attempting to gather intelligence on their competitors will not stoop to such illegal methods. However, every firm wants to know what their competitors are doing in order to obtain or maintain a competitive advantage. Organizations are advised to manage their counter-intelligence practices to mitigate both legal and illegal intelligence collections by competitors.

Competitors are not the only threat to an organization’s intellectual property. Foreign governments pose a threat to private sector firms, government agencies, and educational instutions whose products, services, or research have economic or geopolitical implications. This can include weapons, energy, communications, technological, industrial, and logistics vectors, as well as any sensitive information on individuals or hard targets.

The most insidious threat to organizations comes from insiders who have been planted or recruited by outside parties or are motivated by their own reasoning to betray their employer and divulge company secrets. Insiders typically have access to a greater range of sensitive information for a longer period of time, enabling them to do much more damage than an external attacker without inside access.

Common red flags on malicious insiders include:

  • Being present in the office long before or long after other workers or on off days in order to have uninterrupted access to sensitive material.
  • Creating physical or digital copies of sensitive data without an evident need for the information. 
  • Accessing software, hardware, or websites to access and remove sensitive data.
  • They live beyond their financial means.
  • They are dealing with a health, financial, or relationship crisis or feel they have been wronged by their employer.
  • They are suspicious or coworkers and nervous about interactions with management.

Insiders, as well as freelance outsiders, can also pose a threat by attempting to sell an organization’s data to competitors or extorting the organization by threatening to release the data.