Corporate Espionage Is a Lot Closer Than You May Think

Most people are aware of what is meant by the phrase “the oldest profession,” but others may not know what is referred to as the “second oldest profession.” That would be espionage and today’s business traveler, particularly American, is more susceptible to it than at any other time in history. “According to the FBI, an estimated $300 billion worth of American intellectual property and business intelligence (IP/BI) is stolen via espionage each year, primarily by the likes of China, Russia, North Korea and even France,” according to the Harvard Business Review.

Think about the amount of business information travelers bring with them stored in luggage, laptops and smartphones. This data is valuable not only to competitors, but to foreign intelligence services and private collectors such as hackers.

“Economic espionage is a genuine and extremely severe threat to international business travelers,” says Luke Bencie, managing director of Security Management International. Americans remain the most targeted as well as the most naïve of all business travelers. In fact, the intelligence is often stolen right under the noses of victims without him or her even knowing it has happened, presenting little risk of exposure. “In many countries, domestic corporations collect competitive intelligence with the help and support of their government.

According to the FBI, some of the most sought after corporate information includes customer data, proprietary formulas and processes, and computer access protocols. As a result of technological advances secretly obtaining sensitive data has never been easier than it is right now. For example, “thanks to the advent of in-flight social networking, which provides passengers the chance to discover more about their fellow seatmates and access their profiles before or during flights, anyone who travels internationally can become a target of opportunity,” notes the Harvard Business Review.

To be sure, today’s corporate espionage techniques continue to rely upon old school methods as well that have proven to work through the ages. One of the most successful is sexual entrapment. “The Russians are still masters of ‘honeypots’ and have blackmailed many a business traveler into disclosing sensitive information in exchange for keeping their affairs secret.” There are other, less overt interpersonal methods as well. “Elicitation” extracts valuable information through seemingly casual conversation by relying upon human nature’s desire to be polite, honest and discomfort in withholding or lying to strangers. The perpetrator pulls sensitive information, personal and business, from the unsuspecting victim who thinks he or she is simply engaged in friendly banter.

The good news is there are a number of actions business travelers can take to prevent, or at least mitigate the impact of, sensitive data being stolen or inadvertently disclosed. Some of the most effective protection strategies include avoidance of revealing travel plans to strangers, not using complimentary WiFi networks and instead opting for a secure VPN, and simply powering off your devices when not in use. Corporate spies have a plethora of both old and new techniques to extract valuable data from companies via business travelers, but there are a number of proactive steps people can take to protect themselves and their companies.

For a comprehensive list of helpful steps to take when traveling from the FBI, click here.