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[] Wirtschaftsspionage und Privatisierung der Geheimdienstarbeit -

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Darwin Magazine, Juni 2001

Defense against the Dark Arts

Now that the cold war is history, intelligence pros are
turning their black-bag wizardry toward corporate
targets?maybe even the likes of you.


JOHN NOLAN, A FORMER U.S. intelligence officer, took the call on a
hot sticky day in July. It was from the CEO of a major consumer
electronics company in California. He told Nolan that his company was
working on a mysterious new technology that once launched, would
change the face of his industry and double the company's revenue base.
The CEO said he had taken "extraordinary security measures" to make
sure no competitors found out about the new product. But just to make
sure, he wanted Nolan, who had founded his own intelligence agency
after retiring from the Department of Defense, to penetrate his company's
fortifications and find out what his R&D group was working on, how much
money was being invested and when the new product would be rolled
out?all in 30 days or less. 

It took Nolan's crew about three hours of working the phones to find out
that one of the company's senior managers had been out of the office for
the past three months. So they staked out the executive's home and
early one morning, tailed him as he drove to a nondescript building about
15 miles from the company's headquarters. An armed guard let the
executive through. Nolan's people made no attempt to follow. Instead,
they took down the license plate numbers of every car in the parking lot
and ran those numbers against Web databases until they had the
identities and after more digging, the work titles of every person who had
driven to the facility that day. 

Posing first as pollsters and later as headhunters, Nolan and his crew
covertly interviewed almost all of the key engineers involved in the project.
They not only discovered what the top secret technology was, how much
it cost to develop and when it would be launched. They also?and well
within the 30-day deadline?gave the shocked CEO the names and
contributions of six strategic partners in the project. 

Nolan, whose Huntsville, Ala.-based Phoenix Consulting Group is one of
the best-known competitive intelligence (CI) firms in the business, says
he only does the James Bond stuff to show companies their
vulnerabilities. But according to Nolan and others in the field, a growing
number of intelligence gatherers regularly transgress ethical and even
legal boundaries on behalf of corporate clients both here and abroad. 

Such spooks?many of them former government spies who migrated to
the civilian sector after the Cold War ended?will resort to every dirty trick
in the book. They'll lie, misrepresent themselves, steal phone records and
do anything they can to wiggle their way into your confidence. Perhaps
even now they are shopping their specialized talents to your competitors.
So, listen up and remember that forewarned is forearmed. 

The Espionage Price Tag 
Earlier this year, in a report to the European Parliament, a British
investigator asserted that both U.S. and European companies routinely
engage in corporate espionage. And many foreign corporations regularly
receive help from intelligence-gathering networks in their own
governments, which use the latest in information monitoring technology to
keep abreast of supposedly private Web communiqués. According to the
U.S. Chamber of Commerce, corporate espionage costs U.S.
shareholders at least $25 billion a year in intellectual property losses. 

"The Internet has made it so much easier to gain access to information. It
has actually made people and companies more open," Nolan says. "It's
getting harder and harder to protect your assets from the bad guys." 

Consider, for example, the recent unpublicized case of a California
biotech CEO who got a call from someone claiming to be a reporter from
a foreign television company. The "reporter" wanted to interview him, and
the CEO was happy to oblige. "One of his crew had a shoulder video
camera, and they walked with the CEO around his R&D lab with the
camera running," says Alan Brill, a senior managing director at
investigative firm Kroll Associates who is familiar with this case. "They
were able to steal a number of secrets by videotaping the equipment, the
settings on the equipment, and papers and notebooks that were lying
around. And this CEO was so busy trying to be a star that he never
noticed what they were doing or validated who they were." 

Some companies, like the biotech CEO's, are at a competitive
disadvantage because they are simply unaware of the spies among them.
Others know what's going on but are afraid to take the steps necessary
to protect themselves. "Most companies don't like to get embarrassed,
and they don't want to risk the bad press that comes from doing the
James Bond stuff," says Nolan, who worked for the Defense Department's
intelligence agency for 22 years. "We can't even use the term
counterintelligence with the business community; they think of torture
and assassination when we use that term. So we call it competitive

Competitive assurance may not involve torture. But it does sometimes
involve lying or misrepresentation. There's the old headhunter trick, for
instance, or the potential investor who just has to know a company's R&D
plans. The ruses are endlessly varied (see
"A Ruse by Any Other Name," right), and
what many executives may not realize is
that they are perfectly legal. Lying to obtain
information is not even cause for a
successful trade secret lawsuit?unless the
imposter has signed a nondisclosure
agreement. Ironically, the only party who
can legitimately be charged with a trade
secret violation is, in many cases, the
employee who unwittingly shared the crown
jewels. "It's not illegal to misrepresent
yourself," says R. Mark Halligan, an expert
on trade secret law and a principal with the
Chicago law firm Welsh & Katz. "And the pretext itself is not actionable." 

Making matters worse, many corporate executives have a faulty
understanding of just how to go about doing the kind of intelligent
intelligence gathering that will keep them one step ahead of the
competition. While corporate CI units need to know the arsenal of dirty
tricks competitors might use against them, specialists say they should
also understand that good competitive intelligence can often be
accomplished without resorting to such shenanigans. If you know what
you're doing, they say, the information you seek about your competitor's
plans can usually be obtained by legitimate "open source" means. 

"You don't have to do the Mickey Mouse stuff to get proprietary
information," Nolan says. "We get that kind of thing all the time just by
calling the right people, going through public records and putting the
pieces of the puzzle together." 

That doesn't mean, however, that there aren't bad guys out there. CI
insiders say that certain Fortune 500 companies regularly rely on
subcontractors to do their dirty work. "The fact of the matter is there are
independent contract relationships," says Halligan, referring to what
happens when a CI firm turns around and hires a subcontractor to do the
work they don't want to get caught doing. The subcontractor "comes back
with a report, and [the contractor] doesn't really inquire how you got the
results of that report. You can call that plausible deniability; the fact is
the corporation's relationship is with the first person, not with any
subcontractor he may have hired." 

Interview with the Vampire 
Marc Barry is one of the bad guys. He says so himself. A cocky fellow
from Dorchester, a working-class section of Boston, Barry won't say how
he learned to do intelligence work or
which agencies he may or may not have
worked for in the past. "I basically
developed my skills working undercover
for years against Asian organized crime
networks that were manufacturing
counterfeit stuff" is all Barry will
acknowledge in a long phone interview
from his office in New York City. But he
readily confesses that people who do the
kind of work he does have to be "highly
manipulative" and "borderline
sociopathic." (Barry is also quite friendly.
After two brief preinterview phone
conversations, he invited this reporter, a
perfect stranger, to his loft in Manhattan
to see his priceless collection of modern

Barry, who is a founder and president of a CI firm?C3I Analytics?in New
York City, says he regularly uses false pretenses to get information on
his clients' competitors. And he knows a lot of other intelligence
gatherers who do likewise. "The Society for Competitive Intelligence
Professionals [SCIP] claims that all of their members abide by ethical
rules, that they do everything by open source," says Barry. "You know,
information you can pull down from a company's 10K, patent searches,
Internet searches, pollution permits, that sort of thing. But that's simply
not true. And the reason I know this is because I have been hired by
SCIP members to engage in some very dubious activity on their behalf." 

Barry claims he once (illegally) obtained the phone records of a West
Coast defense contractor at the request of a prominent CI firm whose
founder is on the SCIP's board of directors. "We do as much open-source
stuff as anyone else?and if you know where to look, you can get a
wealth of information without resorting to deception and trickery," he
notes. "But when it comes to things like profiling a competitor's
R&D?like finding out Pfizer's formula for a drug it's developing for
arthritis?you're not going to get that without deception or trickery."

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