Corporate Espionage Definition

by Justine Bayod Espoz - Updated September 26, 2017
Corporate espionage is on the rise.

Though we rarely hear about it, corporate espionage is an international grand scheme that spans individuals, corporations and countries. The players in this game use any means necessary to gain advantage over their competition. Corporate espionage has only recently become better known to the general public because of films like "Duplicity," starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. Despite this new attention, corporate espionage has increased thanks to ever-improving technology and science.


Corporate espionage is the act or practice of spying to gain secret information on a government or a business competitor. Usually, a spy is paid a fee for the information he has gathered. According to the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals, in 2004 corporations spent an estimated $2 billion spying on each other. To gain advantage over their competitors, many corporations hire ex-military and government agents trained as spies. These individuals lead new divisions within the company, with missions to gain information from competitors within the pretext of competitive intelligence.

How It’s Done

Though most organizations are improving their methods of controlling security, data still leak through the cracks. Competitors can steal information with a simple key-logger or USB drive. Both devices transfer data in and out of systems. Additionally, they can steal information through the Internet. Fewer companies are focusing on securing the wireless employee because they are constantly trying to secure the wireless corporation. Thus, thieves can steal information simply by using Wi-Fi phishing techniques and easily capture limitless amounts of important personal and corporate information. A spy can also access locked ports and writable devices using hacking and password-cracking instruments.

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Espionage Cases

Many real-life cases of corporate espionage show the extremes to which people are willing to go to gain information. In one instance, a system administrator who worked for Acxiom, a company that administers customer information for banks, retailers and credit card issuers, hacked into a protected computer and stole a customer database from the company. This theft cost the company almost $6 million.

Another intelligence case involved an FBI language specialist who similarly hacked into an FBI computer multiple times solely for monetary gain. In another case, a man used key-logging software at Kinko’s stores around Manhattan to steal customers’ passwords and credit card information. He then used their information to access bank accounts and transfer their money into online fraudulent accounts that he had opened.

Is It Worthwhile?

For all the money that certain corporations spend to get information, sometimes corporate espionage just isn’t worth it. Companies are becoming more adept at catching thieves and making them pay enormously for their pilfering. For example, in 1993, Volkswagen stole various General Motors plans but ended up paying $100 million when it was caught.

Similarly, in 2001 Unilever's Chicago offices caught Procter & Gamble spies trying to steal shampoo formulas. Part of a larger corporate espionage initiative, this thievery cost P&G $10 million, which was paid to Unilever. In an interesting case in 2006, and an example of something that has become more common in recent years, Hewlett-Packard was caught spying on its own company.

Avoiding Espionage

Though espionage is not completely unavoidable, there are certain things companies, individuals and corporations can do to keep thieves from stealing data and other important information. For example, they should never expose any internal network to outsiders and make sure all storage areas are secure.

Additionally, data at rest should always be encrypted and not readable when not in use. Data inside storage should also be tamper-proof, which can be done by creating access controls where only the individual user can access his files. Overall, companies should regularly monitor the data to assess how it is being used and remain vigilant. The more knowledgeable corporations are about theft, the easier it is to protect their information.


  • Notable Industrial Espionage Cases – Wright

About the Author

Justine Bayod Espoz is an arts and culture photojournalist based in Madrid, Spain, who began writing professionally in 2001. She has since published her writing, photography and videos in such international online and print magazines as "Art Monthly Australia," "Dance Europe," "Dance International" and "Dance Magazine." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and English literature from Smith College.

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