corporate espionage

Corporate Espionage: From Tea Theft To Non-Profit Infiltration

Corporate espionage, also known as industrial espionage, is the acquisition of trade secrets from business competitors through any number of shady or unethical tactics.

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, as long as there has been commerce and competition, there has been spying on the sidelines.Where there are ideas and plans, there will always be people willing to steal and sell them.

Though we can trace corporate espionage to before the 1700’s, one notoriously successful case occurred in the 1800’s. British tea company East India Co hired Scottish botanist/adventurer Robert Fortune to smuggle tea, seeds, and secrets from China disguised as a Chinese merchant.

Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian Magazine.

Spooky Business: Corporations preying on nonprofits

A report by Corporate Policy (aptly called Spooky Business) released in November 2013 found that some of the biggest corporations, such as Coca-Cola, Walmart, and McDonald’s have been relentlessly spying on nonprofit organizations perceived as threatening to their agendas.

Companies have been documented hiring former CIA and NSA officers, or other agents that had or still worked as government, police, intelligence or military officers, to breach the privacy of all sorts of nonprofits with little regulation or oversight.[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”YU09kBhF2INSRlgTDqTbS0jGcySE58b3″]

Nonprofits targeted with espionage include “environmental, anti-war, public interest, consumer, food safety, pesticide reform, nursing home reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control groups,” the report says.

Who are the bad guys now? Spooky Business points out a handful: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca Cola, Burger King, BP, Shell, McDonald’s, Chevron, and BP, to name a few.

Modern corporate espionage: Cyber hacking

As new cyber-spy tactics emerge with technology’s growth, cyber-hacking has increasingly become a corporate espionage tactic. In 2006, in a case called Operation Shady RAT, more than 70 companies, governments, and nonprofit organizations were hacked. The attacks were traced to China, according to the Washington Post.

There are cyber attacks like this going on all the time, as can be seen in Google’s Digital Attack Map.  The map – which users can subscribe to-  typically shows a startling amount of activity in both the U.S. and China.

corporate espionage

Though it’s easy to just blame China for espionage against other nations, by now it’s no secret that the U.S. is responsible for a large amounts of internal and external government spying itself. Should corporate spying come as a surprise?

Why does it matter?

The Spooky Business report, along with various news sources such as The Guardian and Reuters, point out that such practices, which include wiretapping, hacking, activist impersonation, and even physical intrusion undermine the fundamentals of democracy.

Nonprofits deserve better protection from these dirty players, as does the rest of society at large – especially under the threat of cyber attacks, which could impact entire cities.

If what British tea companies did to Chinese tea or what Chinese hackers did to U.S. companies seems wrong, infiltration of and against innocent organizations, citizens, and do-gooders is certainly questionable – especially as they’re the ones whose voices may most need to be heard.


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Jennifer Markert