Key Drivers influencing industrial and economic espionage

By Mario Bekes


During the Covid19 crisis, the typical workplace is no longer a company office, protected by technical, mechanical and physical security with access controls and an IT/cyber security manager physically sitting next to employees.

In contrast, the workplace has become the kitchen table or spare room, with many of IT devices also being used by household family members, partners or kids. Companies who were already set up for home working will typically have stronger security protocols than those who were forced to respond rapidly to home working and have kept utilising the same approach they did from day one.

With this transition of the workplace from offices to home set-ups, it is much easier for industrial or economic espionage operations to be performed successfully. The world has suddenly become flat.

Flat in sense that access to information can be done via an internet cable, Wi-Fi or email. There is no longer the need for an operative to be present in person, however that does not mean an existing intelligence operative may not be in the vicinity of your staff member or executive etc.

It is important to acknowledge that even if you decide to investigate a breach in your corporation due industrial or economic espionage type activity, it will be difficult to successfully complete your investigations for one simple reason – the perpetrators will be hundreds or thousands of kilometres away having learned and explored your organisation’s weaknesses.


So, what are most common drivers for successful industrial or economic espionage?

Human Factors:

Recruitment of informants or insiders to perform industrial or economic espionage is nothing new, however the Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego (MICE) methodology for recruitment during Covid19 will be on rise due to these two key indicators:

• Money – Covid19 lockdowns have caused distress on many families, employees and business owners who will seek a way to continue the lifestyle they had prior to pandemic or even to enhance a lavish lifestyle. Uncertain economic recovery and limited markets will drive individuals to seek monetary remedies based on previous work, R&D and current exposure to defence, government and other valuable information.

• Ideology – all modern western society is blend of many different cultures, often firmly embedded into society. It is certain that many unknown individuals are part of larger overseas intelligence networks, sent to the host country either as an immigrants, students or workers and patriotism will always prevail over lifestyle – patriotism was favourite model for recruiting informants in the socialist communist countries of the Eastern Bloc.


Technical Factors:

Access to classified information via technology and cyber espionage is the main modus operandi of industrial and economic espionage.

Most of the technology devices used in the day-to-day life of corporations and households are built-in third-party countries, including components of the telecommunications, PC’s, laptops and electric vehicles.

Importantly, this technology purchased from other countries could be possibly manufactured in a way to collect information without the consumer suspecting. (Samantha Hoffman and Elsa Kania, 2018)

Adding to the weight of the technical factor driver, is the possibility of easier access to information via hacking. Social engineering, the art of manipulating people to obtain confidential information, is made easier with corporate employees preferring to work from home. When you add the challenges of securing information in a home environment, this makes hacking more straightforward.

Despite legislations and various actions by countries to prevent cyber espionage and sanction those who commit it, there are strong drivers for foreign countries to utilise their existing ideology-based, informant network and recruit individuals from different corporations.

(Rowel.B.I., 2020) stated in her article that the danger of State-sponsored cyber espionage is that that any foreign intelligence agency will not prosecute or extradite those who are organised and financially supported to perform cyber espionage, instead they will deny, to minimise the exposure that anything happened.

(Samantha Hoffman and Elsa Kania, 2018) stated, “Any organisation and citizen shall, in accordance with the law, support, provide assistance, and cooperate in national intelligence work, and guard the secrecy of any national intelligence work that they are aware of,” concluding that the Chinese intelligence agencies will support and demand Chinese telecommunication companies to assist in cyber espionage when requested.

To summarise, Covid19 has increased the vulnerability of organisations to industrial and economic espionage. With espionage activities becoming increasingly sophisticated, organisations need to address both the human and technology factors that are increasing the risk of damaging infiltrations.

This post was written by Mario Bekes