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How Does Espionage Occur?

There are two ways that espionage can occur. An easy, low-technology avenue would be for current or former employees to simply take the data or for someone to use social engineering methods (discussed in Chapter 3, “Cyber Stalking, Fraud, and Abuse”) to extract data from unsuspecting company employees. The second, more technology-oriented method is for individuals to use spyware, which includes the use of cookies and key loggers. There are also other technological methods we will discuss.

Low-Tech Industrial Espionage

Corporate espionage can occur without the benefit of computers or the Internet. Disgruntled former (or current) employees can copy sensitive documents, divulge corporate strategies and plans, or perhaps reveal sensitive information. In fact, whether the method used is technological or not, disgruntled employees are the single greatest security risk to any organization. A corporate spy need not hack into a system in order to obtain sensitive and confidential information if an employee is willing to simply hand over the information. Just as with military and political espionage, the employees’ motives for divulging information vary. Some engage in such acts for obvious financial gains. Others may elect to reveal company secrets merely because they are angry about some injustice (real or imagined). Whatever the motive, any organization has to be cognizant of the fact that it has any number of employees who may be unhappy with some situation and have the potential to divulge confidential information.

Certainly, one can obtain information without the benefit of modern technology; however, computer technology (and various computer-related tactics) can certainly assist in corporate espionage, even if only in a peripheral manner. Some incidents of industrial espionage are conducted with technology that requires little skill on the part of the perpetrator, as illustrated in Figures 7.2 and 7.3. This technology can include using universal serial bus (USB) flash drives, compact discs (CDs), or other portable media to take information out of the organization. Even disgruntled employees who wish to undermine the company or make a profit for themselves will find it easier to burn a wealth of data onto a CD and carry that out in their coat pocket rather than attempt to photocopy thousands of documents and smuggle them out. And the new USB flash drives, smaller than your average key chain, are a dream come true for corporate spies. These drives can plug into any USB port and store a tremendous amount of data. As of this writing, one can easily purchase small portable devices capable of holding 10TB or more of data.

Figure 7.2

Figure 7.2 Low-tech espionage is easy.

Figure 7.3

Figure 7.3 Low-tech espionage is portable.

While information can be taken from your company without overt hacking of the system, you should keep in mind that if your system is unsecured, it is entirely possible that an outside party could compromise your system and obtain that information without an employee as an accomplice. In addition to these methods, other low-tech and even virtually “no-tech” methods can be used to extract information. Social engineering, which was discussed at length in Chapter 3, is the process of talking a person into giving up information she otherwise would not divulge. This technique can be applied to industrial espionage in a number of ways.

The first and most obvious use of social engineering in industrial espionage is in direct conversation in which the perpetrator attempts to get the targeted employee to reveal sensitive data. As illustrated in Figure 7.4, employees will often inadvertently divulge information to a supplier, vendor, or salesperson without thinking the information is important or realizing that it could be given to anyone. The attacker simply needs to try to get the target to talk more than she should. In May 2022 various intelligence agencies were warning of foreign spies using social media to begin social engineering attempts.8 A foreign spy might set up a fake profile pretending to be a scientist in order to befriend scientists working on sensitive or classified projects. The goal is to first make contact with the target and then, over time, ingratiate oneself with the target and eventually get access to sensitive data.

Figure 7.4

Figure 7.4 Social engineering can be used as low-tech espionage.

Another interesting way of using social engineering is via email. In very large organizations, one cannot know every employee, so a clever industrial spy could send an email message claiming to come from some other department and perhaps simply asking for sensitive data. A corporate spy might, for example, forge an email to appear to be coming from the legal office of the target company requesting an executive summary of some research project.

Computer security expert Andrew Briney says that people are the number-one issue in computer security.

Spyware Used in Industrial Espionage

Clearly, any software that can monitor activities on a computer can be used in industrial espionage. An April 2021 article describes a marketplace named Industrial Spy that is set up for the purpose of buying and selling trade secrets. Often, the attackers will first hold the data for ransom and then sell the data—sometimes even if the ransom is paid.9 One method to accomplish monitoring is via spyware, which we discussed in detail in Chapter 5, “Malware.” Clearly, software or hardware that logs keystrokes or takes screenshots would be advantageous to an industrial spy. An August 2021 article specifically discussed an incident wherein the Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, had his smart phone targeted by spyware and several megabytes of data exfiltrated over several months. The specific spyware is alleged to have been Pegasus, which was originally created by an Israeli company for government use.

The application of this type of software to espionage is obvious: A spy could get screenshots of sensitive documents, capture logon information for databases, or capture a sensitive document as it is being typed. Any of these methods would give a spy unfettered access to all data that is processed on a machine that contains spyware.

Steganography Used in Industrial Espionage

Steganography is a way of keeping messages secret. Rather than hide messages by using encryption, steganography protects communications by obscuring them. Messages are hidden within images. And in some cases other images are hidden within images. The word steganography comes from the Greek steganos, meaning “covered” or “secret,” and graphy, meaning “writing” or “drawing.” There are several technical means to accomplish this, but the most common is to conceal the data in the least significant bits of an image file. However, data can be concealed in any sort of digital file.

It should also be noted that historically there have been nontechnical means of hiding messages. A few notable examples include the following:

  • The ancient Chinese wrapped notes in wax and swallowed them for transport.

  • In ancient Greece, a messenger’s head would be shaved, a message was written on his head, and then his hair was allowed to grow back.

  • In 1518, Johannes Trithemius wrote a book on cryptography and described a technique in which a message was hidden by having each letter taken as a word from a specific column.

You might think that accomplishing steganography requires a great deal of technical knowledge; however, there are many software packages available that will perform steganography for you. Quick-Stego and Invisible Secrets are two very easy-to-use software tools that will do steganography for you. MP3Stego is a free tool that hides data inside MP4 files. These are just a few of the tools available on the Internet. The widespread availability of cheap or free tools that are easy to use makes steganography a threat to any organization.

Phone Taps and Bugs

Of course, there is always the possibility of using phone taps. A phone tap involves tying into a phone line at some point and intercepting calls. This is often done at some utility location inside the building one wishes to tap. Obviously, this sort of attack requires the attacker to enter on or near the premises, compromise phone equipment, and have the skill to tap into the phone line.

Spy for Hire

A 2021 article discussed mercenary spy firms, which are private surveillance companies.10 Many of these companies claim to engage only in legitimate work; however, many have been accused of illegal activities. The company Black Cube, for example, deployed spies on behalf of Harvey Weinstein. Similar information was published in a 2021 Tech Republic article,11 which discusses a report that identified six companies: Cobwebs Technologies, Cognyte, Black Cube, Bluehawk CI, BellTroX, and Cytrox, as well as an unnamed group in China.12

Industrial espionage can involve a disgruntled insider or spyware; however, it can also involve “spies for hire” (that is, mercenary spies). These individuals are usually experienced investigators, and sometimes they’re even former employees of intelligence agencies. This means that one should not be surprised to see the same techniques and tools that nation-states use now used in industrial espionage.

A 2022 article in the New York Post describes specifically how one former corporate spy gathered data.13 His techniques relied primarily on social engineering, and his tools were nothing more than a phone and his laptop. Robert Kerbeck, the spy in question, claims to have been earning up to $2 million per year doing corporate espionage.

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