Industrial espionage targets sensitive companies, in sectors like energy or technology, against a backdrop of geopolitical tensions and economic instability. Certain secret information of these organizations is particularly sought after.

Industrial Espionage: the biggest cyber threat

Definition of Industrial Espionage

Industrial espionage, or economic espionage, refers to a set of espionage activities conducted for economic or commercial purposes. It involves intrusions into organizations by individuals, companies, or governments. The aim: to collect confidential data to gain various advantages, such as competitive ones. These can employ different methods of cyber espionage, like phishing or social engineering, depending on the chosen target. Finally, the financial consequences of industrial espionage for companies are significant and can even jeopardize their activity. They also disrupt the economic stability of a nation.

An alert by the Five Eyes alliance

In October 2023, the Five Eyes summit convened, an alliance of five global powers (Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand). The heads of intelligence services from these countries were present and alerted to an unprecedented rise in industrial espionage attacks, originating from China. Mike Burgess, director-general of Australian intelligence, stated, “The Chinese government is engaged in the most sustained and sophisticated theft of intellectual property and acquisition of expertise in the history of humanity.” Organizations worldwide are thus warned and must protect themselves against cyberattacks and agent infiltrations. Protecting a nation’s scientific and technical potential is more essential than ever.

High-Tech Sectors Heavily Affected

The most cutting-edge sectors are predominantly victims of industrial espionage. This includes companies in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, or biotechnology. Industrial espionage attacks concern defense and energy organizations but also strongly their supply chain. But what information is targeted?

Types of information targeted by Industrial Espionage

Technical and technological information

Information related to the technical design of products or technology development represents a competitive advantage. Thus, in the computing sector, machine learning algorithms or electronic chip design schemes are coveted. In the energy sector, renewable energy production processes or advanced battery production techniques are a goldmine for spies. In the defense and aerospace sector, industrial espionage can target advanced weapon system plans or navigation and communication systems for spacecraft. In these cases, beyond mere financial loss, industrial espionage disrupts national defense security.

Example of technological information espionage

In January 2023, a former engineer from General Electric (GE) in the United States was sentenced for conspiracy to commit economic espionage. He premeditated the theft of technological secrets related to land and aeronautical turbines, for the benefit of China and other entities developing this type of product.

Corporate strategic information

Corporate strategies detail all the innovation, development, and financing axes of organizations. Thus, in the Finance sector, details on merger and acquisition plans or proprietary investment analysis models are highly sensitive. Their loss can harm the competitiveness of companies. In the pharmaceutical sector, data on clinical trials or manufacturing processes also face espionage risks.

Example of strategic information espionage

In 2023, within NVIDIA, a software developer is suspected of having disclosed secret information related to the source code of a parking assistance software, retrieved from his former employer, Valeo. The latter ensures that these data could benefit NVIDIA’s development.

Information on Personnel and Talent

Indeed, industrial espionage also involves the detection of key individuals who can provide sensitive information. Some strategic poachings in organizations aim to harm the smooth operation of the company by attempting to recover its knowledge. At a time when economic competition is increasingly strong, the leakage of skills affects the sustainability of a company.

How to Protect Your Information from Industrial Espionage?

Highly sensitive information, which should not be widely communicated, usually carries a “restricted distribution” protection mention. They are sometimes even classified under national defense secrecy.

However, in addition to legal and technical measures, collaborators have the responsibility to adopt good cybersecurity practices to limit the risk of information leakage.

Ensuring Confidentiality of Exchanges

Exchanges between collaborators, even trivial ones, can constitute key data for spies. To exchange sensitive information in a meeting, collaborators ensure to close the door of the room properly. However, remotely, collaborators use video conferencing, even for sensitive meetings. It then becomes more difficult to ensure that all doors are properly closed and that no one outside the company can listen to the exchanges. Only end-to-end encrypted video conferencing, from client to client, GDPR compliant, guarantees total confidentiality of exchanges.

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Reacting to Intrusion

Organizations must plan a number of defense measures in case of infiltration. These can be part of a crisis management or business continuity plan. In this context, the use of a highly secure video collaboration solution is recommended. It takes over the main compromised communication tool and ensures business resumption as soon as possible while facilitating the work of crisis management teams.

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