Business Espionage: Headline news for decades now.
We are bombarded with news stories and court trials tornado-ing around Chinese spies. They’re everywhere. Collecting everything. They are such a fixture in and around our hapless businesses that it only seems right to offer them health insurance, a pension plan, cookies and milk.
But wait. Let’s think this through.
Aren’t these the folks who had the secrets of silk stolen from them by Justinian I? Humm, could this be why great neckties are made in Italy, not China? Even their espionage death penalty law couldn’t protect them. Boom! Business espionage devastated their economy.
I also recall a dude from the UK, Robert Fortune, sort of an early 007. He was sent to steal the secrets of tea production from… Have you guessed yet? China! That caper is now know as The Great British Tea Heist. Boom! Business espionage devastated their economy yet again. Oh, and what about the Chinese secret of making porcelain? A French Catholic priest stole that one. BOOM!! I could go on and on. Gunpowder, paper, etc. Bing! Bam! BOOM! Feeling sorry for China yet? Don’t. They are making up for it, right now. The disk drive that just started whirring in your computer… it might be them.
And, don’t think this is just some cosmic Yin and Yang, great mandella, or as we say here, “What goes around, comes around.” No, that explanation is too simplistic, not to mention fatalistic. There is more to this industrial espionage business. The circle is bigger. This is history repeating itself, over and over and over.
Remember when England needed rubber? Where did they have to go to get it? I hear you say, “Brazil.” Correct! But they didn’t like being held captive by one source. So, what did they do? Right again. In 1876, they stole some rubber tree seeds from Brazil and cultivated their own trees. [insert Monty Python foot-stomping fart sound]! Brazil’s very promising economy, with car and bicycle tires just around the corner, is squashed.
Remember America’s meteoric rise to the top of the International charts? Guess what propelled that one… intellectual property thefts committed by Samuel Slater and Francis Cabot Lowell. They brought the secrets of cotton and wool production to our shores from England. Instant industrial revolution for us. Zip! The economic loose thread on Britain’s sweater got “yanked”.
I feel their pain. It’s happening to us right now.
The history of mystery list continues with Lieven Bauwens, a Belgian, stealing the British spinning mule; Thomas Whitty stealing weaving secrets; John Lombe stealing silk machine designs; atomic bomb secrets going everywhere.
Even English muffin baking secrets aren’t safe. (“…there are but seven executives who know the exact formula that causes the English muffins to develop their nooks and crannies,” and one guy tried to make off with it…” more)
Business Espionage: What we have learned.
- Anyone with exclusive information will attract business spies.
- Industrial spying changes the fortunes of countries and the courses of history.
- Espionage laws with stiff legal penalties do not deter spies.
- History repeats itself.
Business Espionage: What we haven’t learned.
- How to stop business espionage.
Competitive advantages are national treasures. Losing a competitive advantage doesn’t just hurt the business which owns it. In the long run, it hurts entire countries and its citizens. The economic damage lasts for centuries.
Viewed in this light, the obligation becomes clear. The keeper of a competitive advantage has a moral and social obligation to protect the asset. This is known in common law as Duty of Care.
So, why don’t businesses do a better job of protecting their intellectual property?
- No direct ownership of the protection responsibility.
- Short-sighted greed. “That extra security costs a little money.” (Actually, very little in the long run considering the cost of a theft.)
- Reliance on espionage laws which are based solely on punishing the spies… if they are caught. If they are not caught the damage still occurs; no one is held accountable.
And now for my cunning plan…
Treat intellectual assets, business secrets, high-level business discussions, communications and critical strategies with the same respect we afford military secrets. They are just as vital, and arguably, more so. Label these gems of information for what they are… National Interest Assets.
Round out the business espionage laws.
History has proved the one-sided, punish-the-spy model does not work – even when the penalty is DEATH!
Business Espionage: The Cunning Plan Checklist
- Impose a legal responsibility to proactively protect National Interest Assets.
- Hold the corporate caretakers of our economic future accountable for protecting their valuables.
- Bring Duty of Care back from its vacation.
- Create standards of protection.
- Provide penalties for inadequate or negligent protection.
- Enforce compliance before the theft occurs. (Hey, we do it with medical and financial records.)
- In short, make proactive counterespionage protection a moral, legal, and economically attractive responsibility.
If you agree, please pass this article on to your legislators. I’ll be doing the same here. The end result will benefit everyone.
Be seeing you,
Originally penned: Wednesday, March 21, 2012.
Updated: Monday, August 22, 2022.
Still waiting for the laws to catch up.
Kevin D. Murray CPP, CISM, CFE, CDPSE is a business counterespionage consultant and TSCM specialist with over four decades of experience.
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