Crossing the line
I recently met with a director of security at a major corporation who mentioned that he actively resisted the establishment of a formal competitive intelligence department within his firm. This was because he felt that it was too easy, in the enthusiasm for gathering information about competitors, to slip over the line between intelligence gathering and espionage.
While we like to think that none of our readers would ever cross the line, somebody else will, and it is good from time to think about what others have done, and decide where we draw the line.
One way people get information is from annual reports, advertisements, publicly published technical material, and sales material.
Additionally, many companies have web sites where information is published, and sometimes employees publish information in magazines and books that reflects the knowledge base of their employers.
At trade shows a lot of literature is given out. In addition, the people at the booth are marketing or technical people who are more than happy to discuss upcoming technology, and even technology still in development. If you ask marketing people or technical people about a specific problem that they are in the process of addressing, they will often give you helpful information long before it should be released.
When companies look for new employees, some people will apply for the job just to be interviewed. During the interview process, information about where the company is going, and particularly in the area in which the job is being filled, is often volunteered. In addition, questions about what is happening may be reasonably asked and answered. If there is facilities tour (something, which many will do if asked,) one can get a close view of what is being done.
Some companies have been known to advertise in a very directed manner for nonexistent jobs, hoping to attract a specific individual, who can then be pumped for information about what they are doing in their current job. In many companies, there are restaurants or bars where employees hang out. Going to these places allows one to mingle, listen, and actively engage in conversation about work.
Some people have met and dated people at a specific company, and are then able to get information — often as part of normal conversation — that would not generally be considered public information.
Much valuable information is put on paper and then thrown out, unshredded. This can be picked out of the trash, or from wherever it is dumped.
Working for a cleaning company – or even forming one which can operate at a lower cost than the competition – allows immediate access to trash, as well as complete and private access to a wide variety of sensitive areas and all accessible papers and files. Once one has access to private areas, copies can be made of whatever is on a subject’s hard drive. In addition, once uninterrupted access is gained, listening devices can be planted.
Some very small companies host their own web sites, using as their server a computer that is also used for their general business. A program such as Web Snake can be used to download their web site — and everything else on their computer, including, if they are imprudent, their customer files, their accounts, all their product information, and all their future plans.
It can often be instructive to look at aerial photographs of a site, particularly one under construction.
On plant tours where classified products are manufactured, something as simple as double-faced masking tape on the bottom of a shoe can pick up sample from a milling machine for later analysis.
If information is truly significant, some will either try to blackmail one of the participants, or, even better, bribe them. Or better still, find a disgruntled employee who will be delighted to help a competitor.
All of the above have been done. You should be aware of what information within your company is of value, and figure out how to protect it from the unscrupulous who are willing to cross the line from competitive intelligence to economic espionage.