July 14th, 2011
01:01 PM GMT
Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) - The skullduggery by the News of the World newspaper in Britain exposed an underbelly of phone taps and lies.
While the fall of the newspaper and the shenanigans of the Murdoch business empire are a compelling and continuing drama, we should be reminded that this sort of behavior is not limited to the tabloid muckraking press.
Underhand tactics, secrets and illegal tampering with private information is a growing and common problem in the corporate world. Call it what you may - industrial espionage, corporate hacking, commercial spying - the practice is widespread and deeply entrenched on a global scale.
In Africa, the practice of stealing or secretly accessing information about another company – more than likely in competition with yours – is not as widespread as it is in Europe, America and Asia. However, here in South Africa the practice of corporate spookery is “massive” and “rife,” according to a security expert working for a global bank.
The mining sector, dealing with rising costs but soaring commodity prices, is particularly vulnerable to corporate espionage. When there is so much at stake, money to be made, and deals to sign, then information becomes valuable. It’s all about gaining a competitive advantage, of course.
There is no doubt, say the security experts, that all the big mining firms working in Africa will be ultra-cautious about their “information security.” As a matter of course, they will double check the backgrounds of new employees who might be “moles” for their competition and they will sweep for bugs or listening devices in boardrooms. They will warn traveling executives to keep a close eye on their laptops and ensure that their emails are protected from cyber spies.
In Europe and the United States, examples of threats to corporate information are numerous. The recent fallout over an alleged spy ring at Renault in France has raised the alarm in Europe over how industry is undermined and even threatened by corporate espionage.
The car manufacturer’s electric car project was allegedly compromised by the presence of three senior executives who were not, to put it mildly, working in the interest of Renault. Who hired them? The French speculate that the competitors in China might be the source of the leak. That, of course, cannot be confirmed.
But there have been many counter-accusations over the decades thrown back at the French, who are described in some reports as being particularly aggressive when it comes economic espionage.
Additionally, traditional allies on the political front but competitors on the economic front, the Americans, the British, and other European companies regularly, according to numerous press reports and security experts, indulge in some form of corporate snooping, known as “friendly spying.”
Within Western economies, the aerospace industry, the tobacco and pharmaceutical businesses and consumer-goods companies - particularly their research and development departments which create new brands or new products - are all targets.
As the global economy continues to struggle, budgets are tightened and outlooks are lowered, the stakes become higher. From a new shampoo brand in Germany to a lucrative new geological find in the DRC, much is at stake for the multinationals and conglomerates.
However, the same pressures that push companies to spy on their competitors are also forcing the same companies to cut their security budgets. This leaves many companies even more vulnerable to hacking of industrial secrets.
So while here in South Africa there is often a real concern about the physical aspects of security – the high walls, the alarms systems - the real danger perhaps lies in the vulnerability of a company’s private information.
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