IDG Contributor Network: The theft of tea leaves and the evolution of cyber espionage prevention

More than 200 years ago, a British botanist smuggled a cache of tea plants and seeds out of China and into British-controlled India. Within a couple of years, that theft enabled India to usurp China as the world’s leading tea grower. India is still one of the biggest producers of tea as a result of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage in history.

Today, stealing trade secrets doesn’t require anyone to cross borders, break into file cabinets or even open iron-clad safes. Thieves, posing as employees online, can easily smuggle large amounts of data with a few keystrokes. Industrial espionage has become highly sophisticated and more daunting than ever to combat. Any company that sees R&D as a means to gaining competitive advantage should be concerned.

Modern-age industrial espionage can come in multiple forms and have serious financial consequences for those impacted. A man casually walked into the Houston offices of a Fortune 500 energy company in the early morning and strolled around for two hours unchallenged before leaving with a stolen backpack and shoulder bag. He wasn’t an employee or contractor, but rather a criminal who pilfered corporate secrets that could be in the hands of a competitor or foreign government. In 1981, Hitachi snagged design documents for IBM’s Adirondack Workbooks, even though the technical materials were marked “FOR INTERNAL IBM USE ONLY.”   

A gold mine for industrial espionage

The common thread across these scenarios is that the final product is less critical than the underlying intellectual property (IP). Whether the IP exists in the form of software code or cancer cures, the digitization of IP – coupled with the adoption of technologies such as cloud and mobile — results in an ever-expanding attack surface that is a gold mine for those attempting industrial espionage.