One of the FBI's leading agents in the field of computer crime has warned that industrial espionage and targeted data theft are on the increase.
Shena Crowe, InfraGuard co-ordinator for the FBI in the technology heartland of San Francisco, said: "Theft of trade secrets is a very big problem".
The use of laptops is contributing to the problem and Crowe predicts an increase in the number of "targeted laptop thefts".
Crowe added: "Computer crime is like white collar crime before Enron. It just hasn't gone 'boom' yet. It hasn't had that large scale event that makes everybody go 'oh'."
However, Crowe expressed mixed feelings about the fact a major event is likely to be required to make companies sit up and take note. Although reporting of such events is increasing and will be necessary if there is to be any chance of thwarting the 'big boom', too many companies have in the past favoured sweeping the problems under the carpet, and this mindset must change, she said.
Crowe said: "Companies have been very worried about their public image and how it might affect their stockholder value. But the good news is that reporting is increasing. A lot of companies are realising this is happening to everybody."
According to recent FBI research, the amount of laptop theft has doubled over the past year and is now the third-costliest form of computer-related crime, behind virus outbreaks and the unauthorised accessing of information.
With physical theft — such as stealing laptops — becoming a key component in data theft, Dave Marcus, global threats team manager at McAfee, said companies must do more to address physical as well as digital security.
He said: "It doesn't matter how hard you try to lock everything down digitally if you leave the closet door open."