Written By: Kym Pasqualini, Feature Crime Writer for Lauth Investigations
When we think of a spy, given the national news cycle, it may conjure up thoughts of Russians or the Chinese who have been long known for hacking and espionage. However, even more common, but much less talked about, is the business mole, and almost every business in America is susceptible.
April 10, 2011, Joseph Muto was hired to work for the top-rated “O’Reilly Factor” but within 3 days, he was discovered by Fox employees to be anonymously writing for Gawker. In the span of 72 hours, Muto wrote a series of articles detailing the internal workings of the network, along with stealing and selling raw video clips. In 2013, he pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges and was dubbed the “Fox Mole.” He was fined $1000 and sentenced to over 200 hours community service. At sentencing, he said he wished he had never betrayed his former employer.
United States industries spend more on research and development of unique products and processes than any other country in the world. The key to success is having an “edge” in the business world. Whether a media company, software developing company or bakery, keeping an edge is key.
When someone steals those “trade secrets”, it is called economic espionage and costs American businesses billions annually. Damages can severely destabilize the victim company to include lost revenue, lost employment, lost investments, interruption in production, damaged reputation, and can even result in a company going out of business.
Corporate espionage conducted by spies or moles believe computers are irrelevant. It is about what data they want, what form they take, and how they can steal it.
The Company Man
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) states no business, large or small, is immune to the threat of moles and/or spies. Any proprietary process, product, or idea can be a target.
To raise awareness, the FBI in collaboration with the National Counterintelligence and Security Center has launched a nationwide campaign and released a short film called “The Company Man: Protecting America’s Secrets,” based on a true story. Mr. Moore is both unappreciated and unhappy with his career as an engineer at a glass insulation and fire-retardant firm. He is targeted on LinkedIn by a competitor who offers him a position in a rival firm. At first, Moore declines because he signed a non-compete. He is then offered $200,000 to obtain plans for equipment and formula for the glass insulation produced at his firm, RIS.
Moore makes the decision to go to his current boss who then contacts the FBI who initiates a sting. A true story, there was an arrest in the case. However, this may not be the decision every employee would make – which makes every employee a liability in a 400 billion, in the dark. underbelly of America’s global economy.
Spotting Insider Threats
What drives a mole? The FBI states company moles are often “overwhelmed by life-crisis or career disappointment” driving them to leak information.
With email, cell phones, and jump drives, stealing information is far easier than in the past. Greed and financial need, unhappiness at work, the promise of a better job, drug or alcohol abuse, and/or vulnerability to blackmail, can all be contributors, says the FBI.
The FBI says employees who leak trade secrets, such as plans, customer databases, etc. will exhibit behaviors other employees can often identify to help prevent breaches.
Your employees may be the first line of protection when combatting the insider threat.
- Drastic changes in behavior, demeanor, or work habits.
- Unexplained affluence.
- Financial hardship.
- Substance abuse.
- Attempts to circumvent security procedures.
- Long hours at the office without authorization.
- Taking home proprietary information.
- Unnecessarily copying materials.
- Using an unauthorized USB drive.
- Unusual use of cell phone during business hours.
- Asking inappropriate questions.
- Suspicious relationships with competitors.
- Leaving traps to detect searches of their office.
Based on FBI’s studies, additionally, there are more subtle things to look for:
- Someone hired to steal company information will be experienced in the operation of a business and will be able to identify the value of your company’s trade secrets.
- Corporate spies are everyone’s friend. To gain access to a company in order to steal information, a mole will be socially adept with the ability to manipulate people to gain their trust.
- Individuals who are frequently wandering or talking in locations they do not need to be to complete their job. Someone who reflects a pattern will always have a reasonable excuse as to why they are not in the correct area or talking to specific employees.
- Employees who keep trying to re-open decisions already settled and question advisability of decisions.
- They act envious.
Vulnerabilities – Getting Access
Once inside, a mole has a lot of ways to access sensitive information. Spies can even work in pairs, possibly one as a consultant and the other an employee. When you have valuable information, never underestimate the methods others will use to gain access to it.
Spying can be as easy as photocopying papers found on unattended desks or at printers. Walking into an empty meeting room with a laptop and pulling data off the network.
A common ploy is pretending to be an employee. Another ploy often used, posing as IT personnel because it enables the individual to look legitimate while accessing network access points and sitting at someone’s computer. In other cases, spies have posed as cleaning staff, gaining access after-hours.
Criminals capitalize on the common assumption if you are in the building, you must be okay. Investing in your company’s staff to raise awareness is the best investment a company can make.
According to InfoWorld, Peter Wood, Chief of Operations at First Base Technologies, a U.K. based consultant firm performing ethical hacking services, “Spies are interested in anything from financial data to intellectual property and customer data. They might steal information for blackmail purposes, but the most common motive for physical intrusion is industrial espionage.”
Wood says the most common way to intrude upon a company is posing as an employee or a visitor, even creating convincing costumes to pose as a legitimate visitor such as telephone, electrical or maintenance person, a burglar alarm inspector, even someone from the fire department.
Protecting Your Trade Secrets
The FBI lists several ways to protect your workplace from insider threats.
- Recognize the threat.
- Identify and value trade secrets.
- Implement a definable plan for safeguarding trade secrets.
- Secure physical trade secrets and limit access to trade secrets.
- Provide ongoing security training to employees.
- Use protective tools such as screensavers with password controls.
- Classify information and store accordingly.
- Secure the workplace so visitors do not have access without security screening.
- Encrypt data and require strong passwords for employees with liberal access rights.
- Develop an insider threat program.
- Proactively report suspicious incidents to the FBI before your proprietary information is irreversibly compromised.
- Ask the FBI or other security professionals for additional awareness training.
At times, companies are hesitant to report such activity for fear they will risk their trade secrets being disclosed in court or compromised in any way. The FBI will do all it can to minimize business disruption, safeguard data and privacy, and will seek protective orders to preserve business confidentiality and sensitive information. The Department of Justice also has a variety of protections in place to ensure information is protected during a criminal prosecution.