Crossing the line

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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.

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