Countering corporate espionage

Summary:Theft of commercially valuable information costs the world's largest companies over £22bn a year, and small firms are just as vulnerable. How can you mitigate the risks to your company?

Corporate espionage costs the world's 1,000 largest companies in excess of $45bn (£22.8bn) every year, according to research from consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

However, smaller companies are also at risk, warned Toralv Dirro, a security strategist with McAfee. "What you need to know is that this is happening more than ever before, and on a bigger scale than ever before," he said. "Any business that derives competitive advantage from information should be concerned about this issue."

Dirro argued that corporate espionage has increased rapidly in the last decade, as more information is put onto corporate networks — and potentially within the reach of hackers. PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, reported that losses from corporate espionage doubled between 1990 and 2000.

Corporate espionage can be defined as the theft of commercially valuable information. This may be the secret formulation of a new product but it could equally be the names and salaries of senior executives, or simply the date of your next marketing initiative.

It's difficult to know exactly how common corporate espionage is because most victims never report the attack to the police, fearful of the consequences of going public, said Paul King, a senior security adviser with Cisco. Moreover, many companies don't necessarily realise that they've been attacked if a hacker is sufficiently skilled. Cisco's security experts constantly scan the internet for reports of attacks on other organisations and assess the risk of similar attacks on their own company. "I think the best we can do is monitor our systems carefully and, if we hear of an attack on another organisation, ensure that it couldn't affect us," said King.

The question isn't whether you know you're vulnerable to corporate espionage, it's knowing how vulnerable you could be, said King. "I never ask why something would happen to us; I ask why it wouldn't," he said. "So, if your chief executive says he's not a victim of this stuff, how confident is he? And the only way to be really confident is to be looking hard for it."

The first step in protecting yourself from corporate espionage is to close the most obvious loopholes — those which can be exploited by hackers without even breaking the law. "We're seeing massive growth in Google hacking," said Rhodri Davies, a technical architect with security specialist Vistorm. "This is the process of using really smart Google searches to find information left open on web servers. It's unsportsmanlike, but definitely not illegal."

With Google hacking, hackers can routinely find information on projects and personnel and the file names of confidential documents, even if they cannot access the documents themselves. "You can easily automate searches, so that, if a document is online even briefly, you'll be emailed that search result," said Davies. The danger is that this information will then be used as the basis of an attack, enabling a hacker to pretend to be inside the company or to launch a social-engineering attack.

Security companies have seen a dramatic increase in "spear phishing", a highly targeted phishing attack where a single executive may receive an email that appears to be from an authorised partner or supplier, relating to a project that isn't widely known outside the company. "The usual trick with this sort of email is to encourage the user to open a file which will launch a Trojan, potentially giving someone access to the whole network," said Dirro. "We have been seeing an awful lot of these [attacks] in the last year or so."

How do you know if you have been a victim of corporate espionage? In many cases, you'll never know, said Dirro. "If it's a skilled hacker, they will have used Trojans to ensure the intrusion-detection system isn't triggered." Security experts recommend regularly conducting...

Topics: Tech & Work

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