Confessions of a Corporate Spy – Got Ethics?

data securityDetails magazine had a great article on the “Confessions of a Corporate Spy”. The author writes about being hired by a client to spy on a rival business.

The article highlights what most industry experts believe is a growing trend in Corporate Espionage. Corporate Espionage is generally defined as illegal or unethical activities conducted for commercial gain. These activities can include theft of information, inappropriate use of information, sabotage, bribery, blackmail, hacking, or social engineering. This is why you should take security seriously, especially when it comes to website security and protection you should take some time to understand how important is it that for your business.

The article is not necessarily intended to discuss the ethical issues associated with Corporate Espionage, but I would like to examine them.

With the advent of the Internet, the lines between what is considered legal or illegal have certainly blurred. This is driven by the availability of information on Internet and the power of search engines. By simply using Google, one can find information that a company might have had to steal in the past to conduct espionage. In fact, the author mentions “Google Hacking” which is simply using Google to find secret information. So these days, companies do not necessarily have to do anything illegal to gain secret information that they can use to conduct espionage.

While the lines have been blurred on what is legal vs. illegal, the line between what is ethical vs. unethical really hasn’t blurred. All a company has to do is ask the question: Would we want and willingly approve of our conduct if another company was conducting the activity against our own company? Think of it as the Golden Rule applied to companies. In fact, some companies have instituted policies that basically use the concept of the Golden Rule, when it comes to competitive intelligence. In other words, they don’t allow activities that they don’t want other companies conducting on themselves.

Ultimately, I think you can look at the behaviors and intent of the activities to clearly delineate what is ethical vs. unethical. For example, does the behavior involve?

  • Deceit
  • Pretexting
  • Hiding
  • Covering up activities
  • Hiring someone because you don’t feel right about conducting the activity yourself.

If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then you have probably already crossed the line from ethical to unethical.

As for the example shared in the article, what do you think? Was his snooping on the rival firm ethical? It was certainly legal, but was it ethical? Let’s answer the questions I posed above for the case outlined in the article.

Did the activity involve?

  • Deceit. Yes
  • Pretexting. Yes
  • Hiding. No
  • Covering up activities. No
  • Hiring someone because you don’t feel right about conducting the activity yourself. Yes

Given these answers, I would have to say the activity in the article was unethical.I don’t believe the activities can be rationalized as, “thats what we were hired to do”.

The author “Anonymous” admits as a corporate spy you have to be willing to ‘get your hands dirty” and work in “the gray area.” While he also admits to “trying to stay within the law”, he never acknowledges trying to be ethical.

Do you agree?

While many Corporate Espionage cases revolve around the use of technology such as hacking, the article also highlights how information can be obtained through simple human observation. Later I will discuss the more common types of methods used for Corporate Espionage, both non-technology oriented as well as those enabled by technology.

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