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N ANONYMOUS tip-off unearths a spy ring, and secrets are exchanged for a stack of cash. As the Government points the finger at China, the loot is swiftly siphoned off into Swiss bank accounts. That’s when the theme tune should kick in, with

James Bond razzing his latest motor. But this tale isn’t so much 007 as Renault 5. The French car maker

was hit by an industrial spy scandal this year when it laid off three senior executives who, it was told, shared details of its electric car program. It turned out to be about as genuine as one of Bond’s chat-up lines, but still, the severity of the French reaction to the hoax shows just how far from fiction corporate espionage is. And the problem is very real indeed. In 2009, Microsoft had

a prototype new generation smartphone stolen from an executive’s pocket – a relatively innocuous act, but with potentially massive consequences for a global company with an iPhone to vanquish. That same year Julian Assange claimed that WikiLeaks had

got hold of five gigabytes of data from the hard drive of a Bank of America executive. These files have been released this year via the hacker group Anonymous, which reckons they show evidence of fraud. Other hacking operations, such as Aurora and Ghostnet, have reportedly emerged from China, attacking the networks of hundreds of organisations and seizing PCs, webcams and internal microphones to record corporate conversations. Corporate espionage, it seems, is rife and full of reward, and that’s

just the few cases on the radar. The UK Government reckons British companies lose around £7.6bn a year to industrial snooping, yet no one really knows just how big the threat is – any company that has been hit will tend to hush it up in order to protect its share price. They only need to heed the sobering lesson of Sumitomo Bank. In

2005, fraudsters launched an audacious $430 million attack by getting cleaners to install key loggers to computers in the trading room. They were foiled, but the bank’s reputation still took a rinsing.

on the attack White Rock, a security company focused entirely on corporate espionage, says its business grew by 30 per cent last year, thanks to the effect of the struggling economy. “The problem became increasingly severe with the recession,” says MD Raili Maripuu. “Competition became more fierce, and when companies start suffering they become more desperate.” Daily life for Maripuu’s team involves everything from staff bribery to

bugs, hidden cameras and special mobiles monitoring rivals’ meetings. Then there are honey traps, where women seduce executives to reveal company secrets. Big in Japan, apparently. This is what White Rock refers to as the ‘sexy side’ of corporate

espionage – explicit attacks by companies seeking information from rivals. It happens, says Maripuu, at times of high-value deals. “Everyone knows what rivals are up to,” she says. “They’ll do anything to beat the competition: find out when key meetings are happening, collect information in advance and attack. If you’re holding a board meeting outside your premises, in a hotel for example, there’s a 50 per cent chance you’ll be attacked.” This may seem far-fetched, but you don’t need a tank of killer

fish under your office or a vicious line in top-hat frisbees to appreciate that it’s now a possibility. “Back when it took nine months to get trade secrets, it would have been just as quick to build the thing yourself,”

“If you’re holding a board meeting outside

your premises, in a hotel for example, there’s a 50 per cent chance you’ll be attacked”

says Sam des Forges, a forensic investigator at Ernst & Young in Jersey. “Now you can get them in two weeks, they have far more value. And now you can fit an entire corporate database on a flash drive too. It’s all happening.”

stealing secrets Competitive fields like pharmaceuticals and technology are the obvious candidates for the lifting of secrets. Take the McLaren-Ferrari spat – a high-octane headline-grabber that only became public knowledge because of a whistleblower. Yet it’s happening across the board, from the legal profession to publishing, with the recent scandal of Murdoch’s News of The World hacking into the phones of celebrities, politicians and crime victims. “We’ve seen a growing demand for bug-sweeping, corporate and

private, especially after all the phone-hacking cases,” says Andy Hines, a private investigator at SGH & Associates. “We’ve had lots of jobs in the past three months from new ventures – they may have a unique business model they want to protect, so they ask us to provide a counter-surveillance sweep of the premises.” Finance is another sector with a rich history of corporate espionage.

In March, Sergey Aleynikov, a Goldman Sachs computer programmer, was convicted of stealing trade secrets after he siphoned the source code for the bank’s high-speed trading software to take to his new job. Prosecutors claimed the code earned the bank ‘many millions of dollars in profits’ each year. Its theft earned Aleynikov eight years in prison. An isolated case? Hardly. Hines says SGH is getting more requests for surveillance work than ever from finance firms, after all the high- profile tales of the FBI infiltrating US hedge funds. “We work with

➔ August/September 2011 33

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