Corporate spying covers a lot of actions

Whether you call it economic, industrial or corporate espionage, these are all terms for spying that is associated with commercial competition instead of national security. These terms can describe a variety of actions by Irvine companies that skirt or cross the line from what is to what is not legal and legitimate intelligence gathering about business competitors.

According to the American Bar Association, the federal Economic Espionage Act provides an outline of what may be considered theft of trade secrets. First, the person/spy must intend to use the information for the good of another that is not the owner of a service or product that is used in international or interstate commerce. The spy must also know or intend the theft to harm the rightful owner. The act also defines the many illegal ways in which this information may be obtained:

  • Taking, stealing, concealing, using fraud or deception, or otherwise obtaining without authorization
  • Copying, sketching, photographing, downloading, uploading, altering, destroying, transmitting, delivering, mailing or merely communicating
  • Receiving, purchasing or just possessing the information knowing that it was obtained without authorization

Furthermore, the act says that any attempt, successful or not, using any of these methods is illegal, as is conspiring with anyone to commit these offenses. The law also allows for a fine and imprisonment as punishment if one is found guilty of trade theft. Companies engaged in these practices may also be fined up to $5 million or triple the value of the secret, including research, design and development costs.

Intelligence gathering is something every organization participates in on some level, according to Network World. It is expected—and legal—for companies to follow the marketing efforts of others in their industry. But there is a fine line that businesses must walk between merely noting what competitors are doing and trying to steal their secrets, and thereby their revenue.

Some quick examples of how easy it can be to cross that line into espionage include: sitting next to someone on a laptop and reading information from their screen; glancing through folders while the owner steps out of the office; finding and using documents that relate to a competitor’s bid on a project you are bidding on.

You can easily see how tempting it is to gather unauthorized information in these simple scenarios. Using data that has fallen into your lap may fall under the broad definitions of the Economic Espionage Act.

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