DEFINITION of 'Economic Espionage'

The unlawful targeting and theft of a nation’s critical economic intelligence. Economic espionage may include the clandestine acquisition or outright theft of invaluable proprietary information in a number of areas including technology, finance and government policy. Economic espionage differs from corporate or industrial espionage in a number of ways – it is likely to be state-sponsored, have motives other than profit or gain (such as closing a technology gap) and be much larger in scale and scope. Recognizing the threat from such activity, the U.S. signed the Economic Espionage Act into law in October 1996.

BREAKING DOWN 'Economic Espionage'

According to the FBI, foreign competitors conduct economic espionage in three main ways:

  • By recruiting insiders working for U.S. companies and research institutions that typically share the same national background.
  • Using methods such as bribery, cyber-attacks, “dumpster diving” and wiretapping.
  • Establishing seemingly innocent relationships with U.S. companies to gather economic intelligence including trade secrets.

The FBI recommends that to counter this threat, companies should take a number of steps that include implementing a proactive plan to safeguard trade secrets, securing physical and electronic versions of intellectual property, and training employees.

In November 2011, the U.S. accused China of being the world’s “most active and persistent” perpetrator of economic espionage, and also identified Russia as one of the most aggressive collectors of U.S. economic information and technology. The problem's scale was evident in subsequent media reports that said hundreds of leading U.S. companies had been targeted by overseas entities for economic espionage.
 

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