May 11, 2012

Economic Espionage

How to Spot a Possible Insider Threat

American industry and private sector businesses are the choice target of foreign intelligence agencies, criminals, and industry spies.

American industry and private sector businesses are the choice target of foreign intelligence agencies, criminals, and industry spies. The above image on the cost of economic espionage to the U.S. can currently be seen on digital billboards—courtesy of Clear Channel and Adams Outdoor Advertising—in several regions of the country with a concentration of high-tech research and development companies, laboratories, major industries, and national defense contractors. If you suspect economic espionage, report it to the FBI at

This past February, five individuals and five companies were charged with economic espionage and theft of trade secrets in connection with their roles in a long-running effort to obtain information for the benefit of companies controlled by the government of the People’s Republic of China.

According to the superseding indictment, the PRC government was after information on chloride-route titanium dioxide (TiO2) production capabilities. TiO2 is a commercially valuable white pigment used to color paints, plastics, and paper. DuPont, a company based in Wilmington, Delaware, invented the chloride-route process for manufacturing TiO2 and invested heavily in research and development to improve the process over the years. In 2011, the company reported that its TiO2 trade secrets had been stolen.

Among the individuals charged in the case? Two long-time DuPont employees…one of whom pled guilty in fairly short order.

Foreign economic espionage against the U.S. is a significant and growing threat to our country’s economic health and security...and so is the threat from corporate insiders willing to carry it out.

And because we’re now in the digital age, insiders—who not so many years ago had to photocopy and smuggle mountains of documents out of their offices—can now share documents via e-mail or download them electronically on easy-to-hide portable devices. 

What Do They Want From Us?

Computer Hard DriveAccording to the latest economic espionage report to Congress from the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, although foreign collectors will remain interested in all aspects of U.S. economic activity and technology, they’re probably most interested in the following areas:

- Information and communications technology, which form the backbone of nearly every other technology;
- Business information that pertains to supplies of scarce natural resources or that provides global actors an edge in negotiations with U.S. businesses or the U.S. government;
- Military technologies, particularly marine systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other aerospace/aeronautic technologies; and
- Civilian and dual-use technologies in fast-growing sectors like clean energy, health care/pharmaceuticals, and agricultural technology.

Why do insiders do it? Lots of reasons, including greed or financial need, unhappiness at work, allegiance to another company or another country, vulnerability to blackmail, the promise of a better job, and/or drug or alcohol abuse.

How to stop them? Obviously, a strong organizational emphasis on personnel and computer security is key, and the FBI conducts outreach efforts with industry partners—like InfraGard—that offer a variety of security and counterintelligence training sessions, awareness seminars, and information.

You can help as well. In our experience, those who purloin trade secrets and other sensitive information from their own companies to sell overseas often exhibit certain behaviors that co-workers could have picked up on ahead of time, possibly preventing the information breaches in the first place. Many co-workers came forward only after the criminal was arrested. Had they reported those suspicions earlier, the company’s secrets may have been kept safe. 

Successful Investigation of ‘Insiders’

- In Detroit, a car company employee copied proprietary documents, including some on sensitive designs, to an external hard drive…shortly before reporting for a new job with a competing firm in China. Details
- In Indianapolis, an employee of an international agricultural business stole trade secrets on organic pesticides from his employer and shared them with individuals in China and Germany. Details
- In Boston, a technology company employee e-mailed an international consulate in that city and offered proprietary business information. He later provided pricing and contract data, customer lists, and names of other employees…to what turned out to be a federal undercover agent. Details

All three subjects pled guilty. But in two of the three cases, the stolen secrets probably ended up in the hands of global businesses that will use them to attempt to gain an unfair competitive edge over the United States.


Gotcha: Special agent discusses 2010 economic espionage case.

FBI, This Week: The FBI is seeing an increase in cases involving spying from foreign intelligence agencies, criminals, and others who wish America harm.

Here are some warning signs that could indicate that employees are spying and/or stealing secrets from their company:

  • They work odd hours without authorization.
  • Without need or authorization, they take proprietary or other information home in hard copy form and/or on thumb drives, computer disks, or e-mail.
  • They unnecessarily copy material, especially if it’s proprietary or classified.
  • They disregard company policies about installing personal software or hardware, accessing restricted websites, conducting unauthorized searches, or downloading confidential material.
  • They take short trips to foreign countries for unexplained reasons.
  • They engage in suspicious personal contacts with competitors, business partners, or other unauthorized individuals.
  • They buy things they can’t afford.
  • They are overwhelmed by life crises or career disappointments.
  • They are concerned about being investigated, leaving traps to detect searches of their home or office or looking for listening devices or cameras.

If you suspect someone in your office may be committing economic espionage, report it to your corporate security officer and to your local FBI office, or submit a tip online at