Who’s stealing your corporate information now?

corporate espionageJust when you thought you had the corporate crown jewels under lock and key it now appears that veteran CIA spies can moonlight and help your competitors determine what is going on inside your company!  I just finished reading a book titled “Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spyby Eamon Javers.  In his book Javers details how companies are employing CIA Agents to spy on their competitors.  Using cutting-edge technology, age-old techniques of deceit and manipulation, and sheer talent, spies act as the hidden puppeteers of globalized businesses.

Because the US Federal Government cannot pay these seasoned employees enough compensation, they are now permitted to use their skills during off hours.  This permits them to leverage their experience and techniques, such as reading the body language of CEOs during interviews to see if they are telling the truth.  Javers discusses a theory called “cognitive dissidence” which says that when someone attempts to hold two conflicting ideas in their brain at the same time, normal people will display noticeable patterns of discomfort.  The human brain will do almost anything to avoid this discomfort and will attempt to do or say things to circumvent the truth.  The classic example is Bill Clinton’s “There is no affair” and “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”  Agents trained to detect body language and innocuous activities can detect valuable information that would otherwise go unnoticed.

Although somewhat surprising, most people would accept these techniques as creative ways of keeping ahead of the competition.  However, several other examples that Javers divulges borders on what most people would think of as illegal.  For example, companies hire spies to listen to employee’s conversations at restaurants.  Illegal?  Probably not.  A little shady?  Maybe.

Javers goes on to discuss a case called the “The Chocolate Wars” between Hershey and Mars where Hershey’s spies were dumpster diving in Mars’ garbage looking for corporate information.  The spies were very meticulous about their activities.  To ensure that the Mars janitors did not notice the missing garbage bags they replaced what they removed with “dummy garbage”.  They searched for discarded emails, calendars and other documents that would tell them anything about what was going on inside their competitor.  They also paid employees at a resort to listen in on executive conversations.  You might be surprised to learn that none of this is illegal in most states.

So the question that I would like to pose is… “in the area of document security, both physical and digital, what safeguards do you have in place today that will reduce this current threat to your corporate information?”

Photo credit Fun Themed Party Ideas

Comments 3

  1. Bill, while it made for fascinating reading there is an irony to it, because a lot of organisations do not fully know the extent to which they exposed to corporate espionage. Some organisations think that they are too small to be spied upon, while others cannot imagine the possibility of being spied upon, but all this does not really matter because unless the organisation takes the necessarily takes the right step to protect their confidential data it is still vulnerable, and once vulnerable it impacts the net worth of the business.

    The net worth of a business itself could be evaluated in terms of monetary value as well as the trust placed in that organisation by the public. The latter is the most difficult to restore. Data security threats are everywhere from employees that want to take their employer’s ideas to start their own business to threats from new businesses in emerging nations and everything inbetween. Organisations should continue to review data security threats on a continuous basis to enable it to take the necessary steps to address mitigate against those threats because once you are behind the curve it’s game over.

    I strongly believe that the competitiveness of businesses like Apple, Microsoft, General Motors, Toyota, Ford, Motorola, HSBC and other businesses can be eroded over the next 20 years if steps are not taken to stem the flow of sensitive information to younger and more hungry competitors. Protecting sensitive data should and must be a core objective of any business aiming to survive the 21st century.

  2. Peter,

    You make some great points about eroding valuation. Companies that were giants in their industries like PanAm and Woolworth no longer exist. Who is to say that someone won’t steal confidential information from a global giant and put them out of business. Apple is one company that has kept a lid on things in the past, although their iPhone 4 problems earlier this year may be eroding that.

  3. Great feedback Peter! Your points are well taken. There is tremendous financial incentive for employees with motivation to sell trade secrets. We have seen this in both small and large companies over the last 24 months. I think senior management is starting to understand that they don’t have crown jewels under lock and key!

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