Stolen Secrets: Trade Secrets and Corporate Espionage

Many students are surprised to find out that there is significant corporate espionage in America. Corporate espionage (aka corporate spying or industrial espionage) is the use of espionage techniques to steal trade secrets, intellectual property, proprietary information, marketing strategies and the like.

While students may think of corporations as stuffy places only filled with paper and computers, they neglect to consider the enormous costs (including time-to-market) that it takes to arrive at a unique product or service. And how much is customer information and sales worth? Plus, research and technology are serious expenditures and organizations pay hefty fees to protect their institutional knowledge.

One example is a chemist employed at Coca-Cola. She was recently sentenced to 14 years in prison for stealing trade secrets related to a BPA-free coating for the inside of cans and selling them to a Chinese company. Were the secrets a big deal? Yes. The trade secrets in this case collectively cost about $120 million to develop.

Other cases include trade secret thefts worth an estimated $1 billion from a petroleum company, a securities firm robbed of $4.1 million, and lawsuits of trade secret thefts between multiple companies in the technology, beauty, and chemical industries.

Not all corporate espionage is as dramatic or damaging as this example. Many employees or former employees leave companies with proprietary information or customer data. And, as might be expected, Silicon Valley is one of the world’s most targeted areas for espionage. High tech industries in computer software, hardware, automobiles, energy, biotechnology, and more are frequently targeted by thieves.

How much is lost to corporate espionage? Well, estimates vary (and not all thefts are reported) but G4S, a British multinational security services company, estimates it in the trillions of dollars each year.

Watch out!

Group Activities and Discussion Questions:

  1. Discuss the difference between laws and ethics.
  2. Ask students to define corporate espionage.
  3. What examples might students know about?
  4. What can be stolen from corporations that might be valuable? How much is that worth?
  5. Show video about corporate espionage:
  6. Divide students into teams. Have each team do an internet search for corporate espionage examples. What happened, when, stolen, results, etc.?
  7. Have each team present their example.

Sources:  Ex-Coca-Cola engineer sentenced in trade secrets case. (10 May 2022). Associated Press.; Bloomberg News; other news sources.

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