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Industrial Espionage: When Employees Get an Offer They Can't Refuse

4 MINS READAug 16, 2006 | 23:18 GMT
Japanese authorities are investigating claims by Nikon Corp. that one of its employees sold a proprietary piece of developmental hardware to a Russian trade official posing as a businessman. Russia, if indeed it was behind the scheme, used one of the most common forms of industrial espionage performed by foreign governments: having an agent establish a false identity after entering a country with diplomatic credentials. Outside agents looking for corporate spies, however, have a long list of tricks. Competitors, criminals and even foreign governments often seek ways to gather proprietary information from companies, some to boost their own operational capacities and others to sell the information on the open market. To successfully infiltrate a company, the outside agents first look for weak links in the target company's operations. A faulty information technology system, for example, can expose the company to electronic surveillance. Other times, proprietary information must be obtained from an employee working within the target company, as apparently was the case at Nikon. The first step in turning an employee into a spy is to identify workers who have access to the information the outside agent seeks. Then, the agent thoroughly examines the targets' backgrounds and situations to determine which employee is most vulnerable to exploitation. An employee who is in dire need of extra cash to maintain an extravagant lifestyle or to support a drinking, drug or gambling problem, or one who is hiding an extramarital affair or other secret, makes a prime candidate. A background check might also reveal that a certain worker is angry with his or her employer over issues of salary or placement in the company. There also are employees who disagree ideologically with the product their company makes or the process the company uses to produce it. Finally, there are the employees whose egos are so big that they might be willing to risk committing industrial espionage just to prove they can get away with it. Robert Hanssen, an ex-FBI employee accused of selling secrets to Russia, was motivated by the belief that he was above the system and could commit espionage without being caught. Of the four major motivations for committing espionage — money, ideology, compromise and ego (known to security officials as MICE) — money is No. 1, though two or more motivations can be used to turn an employee. More often than not, simple bribery is sufficient to obtain the desired information, especially if the employee is living beyond his or her means for one reason or another. Outside agents looking to turn an employee can also use blackmail. Demanding proprietary information in exchange for not exposing a personal secret, for instance, is a cost-effective approach that also allows the agent to return again and again to the same source. This method is a bit riskier, however, as it can cause more resentment than other means and make the source more likely to rebel. Once the agent has identified the weakest link, the final step is to approach the employee. In an effort to establish trust between the agent and the employee, contact can begin gradually with requests for small, seemingly harmless information such as internal phone numbers. In this approach, known as the "little hook," the employee is offered "gifts" in exchange for these favors. The requests gradually become greater in scope until the targeted information is obtained. Beyond target exploitation, many cases of industrial espionage involve a company employee actively seeking outside parties with offers of proprietary information. Similar motivations of money and notoriety apply in these cases. In July, a disgruntled employee of the Coca-Cola Co. was promptly turned over to authorities after he attempted to sell trade secrets to rival Pepsi for $1.5 million. The most effective way for companies to spot the potential weak link among employees is to be as aware as possible of any problems workers might have. Although companies may not have the jurisdiction to monitor the personal lives of their employees, strong internal monitoring can greatly reduce the possibility of office espionage. Personal issues, financial or otherwise, often can be evident in the workplace. In such a case, it is important to maintain vigilance.

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