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The latest Wikileaks revelation that Stratfor, a private intelligence network, carried out surveillance on Bhopal activists on behalf of Dow Chemicals provides a rare insight into the world of corporate espionage. It is a secretive world, where not many want to discuss specifics, not much thought is put into delineating right and wrong, and where billions of dollars are pumped in by private corporations. There are no clear estimates, but it definitely is a flourishing industry, according to those familiar with it. The recent sourcing of the Niira Radia tapes for a corporate house is an instance of how widespread the practice is.
Private investigation agencies and those involved in the sector say clandestine activities can range from carrying out background checks of employees to tracking counterfeit products and keeping a watch on competition. Many times it can mean theft of a rival's product development, marketing plans or other intellectual property right material.
Says Dinesh K Pillai, CEO, Mahindra Special Services Group, a firm that advises corporates on security and related matters, "There is a huge amount of money in collection of data and other information of interest to companies, especially about their competition. " The latest trends in the game of corporate espionage include planting employees in rival firms, hacking into the network of other companies, and targeting outsourcing partners.
Thanks to large-scale digitisation and dependence on IT, espionage has become that much easier, but also more complex. A senior executive with a large conglomerate says his group, along with many big corporations, has dedicated teams that are into corporate espionage. "You call them by whatever name, but they primarily are our ears on the ground, warning us of the coming challenges and unexpected pitfalls, " he says, arguing that it is a necessary part of doing business in a competitive world.
Naman Jain, director of Sleuths India Detectives, a Delhi-based firm with corporate clients, says they regularly get requests for employee verification, especially to check if they have been into data theft or such illegal activities;due diligence of firms that go beyond just balance sheet analysis;and looking for counterfeit products and tracking down debtors. "The demands vary and almost all major corporations engage private detectives like us for the work, " Jain says.
Says a senior executive working in a private firm for the company's division handling such activities, "Our job is to keep a watch on competition, see if we can get something on their plans and occasionally carry out specific ops. "
It was one such group that may have ultimately got Niira Radia tapes to the media market, speculate one executive involved in corporate espionage. The CD containing select conversations, with transcript landed in media offices in anonymous packets. The intent may have been to defame rival corporates, the executive says.
A large amount of corporate espionage activity still takes place in the real world. Tapping phones, planting bugs and following people among others. For a few hundred dollars, sophisticated eavesdropping equipment, recording devices and other espionage equipment are available on the net today. There are some Indian companies that may have acquired off-the-air mobile phone interceptors, and other sophisticated equipment as part of their elaborate surveillance on own employees and competitors.
Pillai says almost 65 to 70 per cent of corporate espionage has now shifted to IT and online. "Manifestations generally happen through IT, though the risk may originate somewhere else, " Pillai says. "Organisations tend to believe if we deploy more and more technology, the problem is taken care of. That unfortunately is not always the case, " he adds.
When a major FMCG company developed doubts that its competition probably had accessed its complete business plan for the next year, it approached the Mahindra Special Services Group. The Group was able to lay a trap and catch an employee of the FMCG company who was siphoning off data. "A set of three people, one a junior employee, the second a person managing the IT network, and a third who funded this as a freelancer, were behind it. We caught them all on camera, after we posed as potential clients for their information, " Pillai says.
In another case, a highly technology oriented company, with access control, CCTV monitoring etc, when it landed up at the patent office to file a patent was told that a similar patent had already been filed. "In the end, we found that irrespective of all technology, they couldn't figure out the pattern anomaly of an employee. He had gone to the design department, where he was not supposed to go. He admitted to the theft, and said his brother was working for the competing company, " Pillai said.
When one of India's biggest export firms started facing sudden strikes, Naman Jain and his colleagues were called in. Exports were shifting away to China. Jain and team found that the trade union leaders were a corrupt lot, doing things for their personal benefit. They were able to disrupt the strike and bring the company's exports back on track.
There are not many questions asked about which of these activities may have bordered on illegality, were ethically wrong or were purely legal. The fact is that at the end of the day the interests of the companies were protected, and it helped them stay ahead of the competition.
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