Spies might seem like a throwback to earlier days of world wars and cold wars, but they are more prolific than ever—and they are targeting our nation’s most valuable secrets. The threat is not just the more traditional spies passing U.S. secrets to foreign governments, either to make money or advance their ideological agendas. It is also students and scientists and plenty of others stealing the valuable trade secrets of American universities and businesses—the ingenuity that drives our economy—and providing them to other countries. It is nefarious actors sending controlled technologies overseas that help build bombs and weapons of mass destruction designed to hurt and kill Americans and others. And because much of today’s spying is accomplished by data theft from computer networks, espionage is quickly becoming cyber-based.

Inside the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program  

The FBI has been responsible for identifying and neutralizing ongoing national security threats from foreign intelligence services since 1917, nine years after the Bureau was created in 1908. The FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, which is housed within the National Security Branch, has gone through a lot of changes over the years, and throughout the Cold War the division changed its name several times. But foiling and countering the efforts of the Soviet Union and other communist nations remained the primary mission.

While the Counterintelligence Division continues to neutralize national security threats from foreign intelligence services, its modern-day mission is much broader. The FBI is the lead agency for exposing, preventing, and investigating intelligence activities on U.S. soil, and the Counterintelligence Division uses its full suite of investigative and intelligence capabilities to combat counterintelligence threats. While the details of the FBI’s strategy are classified, the overall goals are as follows:

  • Protect the secrets of the U.S. Intelligence Community, using intelligence to focus investigative efforts, and collaborating with our government partners to reduce the risk of espionage and insider threats.
  • Protect the nation’s critical assets, like our advanced technologies and sensitive information in the defense, intelligence, economic, financial, public health, and science and technology sectors.
  • Counter the activities of foreign spies. Through proactive investigations, the Bureau identifies who they are and stops what they’re doing.
  • Keep weapons of mass destruction from falling into the wrong hands, and use intelligence to drive the FBI’s investigative efforts to keep threats from becoming reality. 

Economic Espionage 

Economic espionage is a problem that costs the American economy hundreds of billions of dollars per year and puts our national security at risk. While it is not a new threat, it is a growing one, and the theft attempts by foreign competitors and adversaries are becoming more brazen and varied. The FBI estimates that hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars are lost to foreign competitors every year. These foreign competitors deliberately target economic intelligence in advanced technologies and flourishing U.S. industries.

What is Economic Espionage?

According to the Economic Espionage Act (Title 18 U.S.C. §1831), economic espionage is (1) whoever knowingly performs targeting or acquisition of trade secrets to (2) knowingly benefit any foreign government, foreign instrumentality, or foreign agent. In contrast, the theft of trade secrets (Title 18 U.S.C. Section 1832) is (1) whoever knowingly misappropriates trade secrets to (2) benefit anyone other than the owner.

Historically, economic espionage has targeted defense-related and high-tech industries. But recent FBI cases have shown that no industry, large or small, is immune to the threat. Any company with a proprietary product, process, or idea can be a target; any unprotected trade secret is vulnerable to theft by those who wish to illegally obtain innovations to increase their market share at a victim company’s expense.


In addition to investigative activity, the FBI works to counter the economic espionage threat by raising public awareness and informing industry leaders. For example, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division develops training and outreach materials, participates in conferences, and visits members of private industry.

In collaboration with the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, the FBI launched a nationwide campaign and released a short film aimed at educating businesses, industry leaders, and anyone with a trade secret about the threat and how they can help mitigate it. Based on an actual case, The Company Man: Protecting America’s Secrets illustrates how one U.S. company was targeted by foreign actors and how that company worked with the FBI to resolve the problem and bring the perpetrators to justice.

The FBI has provided more than a thousand briefings on the economic espionage threat to companies and industry leaders, using The Company Man as a training tool. The FBI hopes to expand the scope of the audience to include a wider range of industry representatives, trade associations, and smaller companies and to encourage them to come forward if they suspect they are a victim of economic espionage.

Related Webpages 

Counterintelligence Brochures