What Is Corporate Espionage? How It Is Conducted & Ways To Mitigate It

corporate espionage

In an era where securing data is more valuable than anything, a new crime has emerged and is growing exponentially, capturing the attention of corporations worldwide and known as corporate espionage. This article unravels the enigmatic world of corporate espionage, revealing its common causes, and offering practical ways to protect your business against this confidential activity. So let’s dive in!

What is Corporate Espionage?

What is Corporate EspionageCorporate espionage, often also known as industrial or economic espionage, is an act that involves illegal and covert activities conducted to steal a company’s sensitive information or trade secrets for the benefit of a competing company or foreign government. It’s not simply a common issue, but a real-world issue that costs businesses billions of dollars each year.

This clandestine activity involves the theft of trade secrets, intellectual property (IP), patent-infringing techniques, or other sensitive information belonging to a company, which can potentially provide a competitive edge to a rival company or foreign government.

Methods used in corporate espionage can vary significantly – from traditional spy-craft techniques like surveillance, bribery, blackmail, and infiltration, to modern cyber hacking strategies. These activities can be initiated by anyone from disgruntled employees, and professional spies, to independent hackers or even state-sponsored groups. The resulting damage from corporate espionage can be disastrous for the companies involved, leading to financial losses, reputational damage, and legal complications.

Causes of Corporate Espionage

Causes of Industry EspionageJust as there is a variety of methods employed in corporate espionage, there are also numerous motives behind these covert operations. Understanding these causes is the first step toward effective prevention.

  • Competitive Advantage
    One of the primary drivers of corporate espionage is the quest for a competitive edge. In today’s highly competitive business landscape, a single piece of insider information can make a significant difference. Companies can use stolen information to get ahead, whether it’s an upcoming marketing strategy, a new product in development, or manufacturing techniques that reduce costs.
  • Financial Gains
    Corporate espionage can be a lucrative business. Stolen trade secrets or intellectual property can be sold to the highest bidder, resulting in enormous financial gains for the perpetrators. In some instances, the stolen information can be used to manipulate stock markets for profit.
  • Political Interests and National Security
    Governments have been known to engage in or sanction corporate espionage to advance their national interests. This could range from boosting their domestic industries, destabilizing a rival country’s economy, or gaining a strategic advantage in matters of national security.
  • Personal Motivations
    Sometimes, corporate espionage can be driven by personal motivations. A disgruntled employee, for example, may attempt to damage their employer out of revenge. Alternatively, an individual may engage in corporate espionage out of loyalty to their new employer or to secure personal advantages, such as a promotion or a job offer.
  • Technological Advances
    The rapid advancement in technology has made it easier for corporate spies to infiltrate a company’s systems. Cyber espionage, in particular, is becoming increasingly common. With most companies storing a wealth of data online, a single breach can give criminals access to a trove of valuable information.

How is Corporate Espionage Conducted?

How is it ConductedThese secretive operations are conducted through various methods and technologies, ranging from traditional spycraft techniques to advanced cyber hacking tools. These can include:

  • Surveillance: Corporate spies may stake out a business, observing and recording valuable information. This could be anything from who’s coming and going, the security measures in place, or even overhearing crucial conversations.
  • Human Intelligence (HUMINT): This involves gathering information through interpersonal contact. A spy might infiltrate a company by getting a job there or by manipulating employees into revealing secrets.
  • Bribery and Blackmail: Unscrupulous individuals might be bribed or blackmailed into handing over confidential information.
  • Hacking: Spies may exploit vulnerabilities in a company’s network to gain unauthorized access to systems and steal sensitive information. This could involve sophisticated techniques such as spear phishing, ransomware, or advanced persistent threats (APTs).
  • Social Engineering: This refers to manipulative tactics designed to trick employees into divulging sensitive information. Common examples include phishing emails, pretexting, or baiting.
  • Malware: Malicious software can be used to gain access to a company’s network, often without the victim realizing it. Once inside, the malware can capture and transmit data back to the spy.
  • Supply Chain Attacks: In supply chain attacks, spies target less secure elements in a company’s supply chain to infiltrate their networks.
  • Insider Threats: Sometimes, the biggest threats come from within the company. Disgruntled or corrupt employees, or those who have been compromised, can act as insider threats, stealing information directly or aiding external spies.

Is Industry Espionage Illegal?

Yes, industrial espionage, also known as corporate or economic espionage, is indeed illegal in most jurisdictions. Therefore, laws and regulations around the world have been enacted to protect companies’ proprietary information and trade secrets from being illicitly obtained.

While there are several laws that provide a measure of protection, the global and often covert nature of corporate espionage can make enforcement challenging. Companies are also responsible for taking proactive steps to protect their proprietary information and prevent the risks of corporate espionage. However, these activities must be conducted openly and ethically without violating any laws or regulations.

Ways to Prevent Corporate Espionage

Ways to Prevent Corporate EspionageWhile it may seem daunting to combat, there are several proactive measures that companies can take to protect their valuable information and mitigate the risks of espionage.

  • Implement Robust Security Measures
    Having strong security measures in place is a critical first step in deterring corporate espionage. This includes both physical security, like access control systems, surveillance cameras, and security personnel, and cyber security measures, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and encryption for sensitive data.
  • Regular Security Audits and Vulnerability Assessments
    Regular security audits and vulnerability assessments can help identify weaknesses in your security systems before they can be exploited. This involves routinely checking your network for vulnerabilities, testing your physical security controls, and assessing your employees’ adherence to security protocols.
  • Employee Education and Training
    Employees are often the weakest link in a company’s security chain, making them a prime target for corporate spies. Regular training and education can ensure that your staff understands the risks and knows how to identify and respond to potential threats, such as phishing attempts or social engineering tactics.
  • Restrict Access to Sensitive Information
    Implement a policy of “least privilege,” where employees only have access to the information necessary to perform their jobs. This limits the potential damage if an employee’s account is compromised or if an employee becomes a malicious insider.
  • Use Secure Communication Channels
    When discussing sensitive information, ensure you’re using secure communication channels. Regular emails, phone calls, or text messages can be intercepted relatively easily, so consider using encrypted communication tools, especially for highly sensitive data.
  • Screening and Monitoring of Employees
    Background checks during the hiring process can help weed out potential threats. However, it’s also important to monitor for suspicious activity among current employees, as they could be recruited by corporate spies or turn to espionage for personal reasons.

Examples of Industry Espionage

These examples illustrate the diverse methods employed by corporate spies and the significant damage that espionage can inflict on businesses.

Volkswagen and General Motors

  • The Volkswagen vs. General Motors case is a notorious example of industrial espionage.
  • The conflict began in the early 1990s between the German and American auto giants.
  • GM accused Volkswagen of conspiracy to steal secrets from its subsidiary, Adam Opel AG.
  • A former GM executive, then working with Volkswagen, was central to the alleged conspiracy.
  • The stolen secrets were crucial to GM’s automobile manufacturing process.
  • The case escalated into a major corporate lawsuit, grabbing international headlines.
  • Eventually, the lawsuit concluded in 1997 with a settlement.
  • Volkswagen agreed to pay GM $100 million in damages as part of the settlement.
  • Additionally, Volkswagen pledged to purchase car parts worth $1 billion from GM.
  • This pledge was part of the settlement and spanned the following seven years.

Google and Uber

  • In 2017, Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, filed a lawsuit against Uber.
  • The lawsuit alleged that a former Google engineer stole Waymo’s trade secrets.
  • These secrets were brought to Uber when the engineer switched employment.
  • The stolen information was related to Waymo’s proprietary LIDAR technology.
  • LIDAR technology is an essential component of self-driving vehicles.
  • Waymo’s lawsuit claimed that this theft significantly benefited Uber’s autonomous car development.
  • The case concluded in a 2018 settlement, marking a high-profile instance of corporate espionage.
  • As part of the settlement, Uber agreed to give Waymo a 0.34% stake.
  • The stake in Uber was valued at approximately $245 million.
  • This case underscores the importance of safeguarding trade secrets in the tech industry.

Starwood and Hilton

  • Starwood Hotels & Resorts filed a corporate espionage lawsuit against Hilton Hotels in 2009.
  • Two former Starwood executives, who had moved to Hilton, were central to the lawsuit.
  • Starwood claimed these executives stole confidential documents about their luxury brand concepts.
  • These stolen ideas were allegedly used by Hilton to develop a similar luxury brand.
  • Starwood’s claim highlighted how corporate espionage can impact competitive positioning.
  • This high-stakes lawsuit rocked the luxury hotel industry.
  • The case reached a settlement in 2010, ending the corporate dispute.
  • Hilton agreed to a $75 million settlement as part of the agreement.
  • Moreover, Hilton had to halt the development of their new luxury brand.
  • This case demonstrates the serious legal consequences of corporate espionage.


In conclusion, corporate espionage is a significant concern in the modern business landscape. Despite being illegal, its occurrence remains prevalent across various industries, ranging from automotive to technology to hospitality. Therefore, companies must remain vigilant, implementing robust security measures, providing thorough employee training, and maintaining stringent legal protections to safeguard their valuable proprietary information.

And if you are looking to implement any of the Infosec compliance frameworks such as SOC 2 compliance, HIPAA, ISO 27001, and GDPR compliance, Impanix can help. Book a Free consultation call with our experts or email us at  [email protected] for inquiries.