It’s time to take serious action in SA against industrial espionage in the form of stealing trade secrets, theft of intellectual property and leaking confidential information.

Stealing trade secrets; theft of intellectual property and databases; leaking confidential information: these are all classified as industrial espionage.

According to Alan Carey, Operations Director of Justicia Investigations, a prominent private investigation company, local companies are vulnerable to losing important data, which will not only impact negatively on their bottom line and the viability of their business, but could also seriously damage their corporate reputation and brands.

In a highly competitive environment and tough economic times, it is far easier and cheaper to expropriate information than to innovate. Leaked technical specifications could negate a massive investment in being the first to market with a new product. A copied customer database could also shrink a market share advantage overnight, Alan warns.

Over the past few months, Justicia has noted an upsurge in the number of calls from companies requesting debugging services. “We are getting between three and five calls a week from large corporates,” he says.

Leo Nardi, Justicia’s Technical Manager, adds that these calls are not only coming from South Africa but extending upwards throughout Africa from Botswana to Tanzania, as the rush to conquer African markets gathers momentum.

Leo adds that finding concrete statistics to back up Justicia’s observations is not an easy task. Both globally and locally, under-reporting is rife with companies preferring not to disclose that they have been the target of industrial espionage for fear of losing customers.

Estimated losses from economic espionage in the USA were thought to run into tens or even hundreds of billions of Dollars annually. Perhaps the best indicator of the surge in illicit surveillance is a dramatic increase in the sales of bugging devices and equipment. Again, there are no South African statistics, but the US State Department estimates that over 700 000 eavesdropping devices are sold each year.

With this comes an inevitable increase in the need for “debugging services” – and, in South Africa, a dramatic rise in the number of fly-by-night operations marketing them.

“Justicia prides itself on 25 years of investigative integrity,” Leo says. In addition to experience, he adds that Justicia is investing extensively in new equipment and training, as bugs are becoming smaller, more sophisticated and increasingly difficult to detect.

As well as constantly updating equipment, Justicia is moving with the times by extending its range of services and has partnered with an ICT company to ensure a holistic debugging approach.

Leo highlights says it is evident that the ICT industry is gearing towards more data storage and throughput. Many companies invest in good equipment but then fall behind in adopting suitable security protocols or in configuring the equipment correctly to minimise risk.

“We encourage clients to introduce debugging policies,” he concludes. “In addition to protecting and limiting access to confidential information, a debugging policy should help managers to recognise the signs – from the irregular conduct of an employee to physical clues of bugging activities having taken place. Companies also need to have their premises swept for bugs regularly. In the corporate world, we are dealing with decision makers in business and know the value of discretion and building ongoing trust relationships.”