This is a fantasy, but one that a top British private investigator finds perfectly plausible. 'The security services are looking for additional roles since the end of the Cold War,' says Patrick Grayson, deputy chairman of the London office of Kroll, the biggest commercial investigation group in the world. 'In the past they would have had no great enthusiasm for ringing up a businessman and offering him information. Now their thoughts might well be turning that way.'
If a faction in the United States Congress gets its way, the sophisticated devices built to spy on the Russians will be turned with devastating effect to national commercial advantage. At the beginning of the year James Woolsey, the new head of the CIA, told his confirmation hearing that the issue of whether the agency should be spying on foreign companies was one of the hottest topics in Washington.
'The CIA needs to justify its budget; it is looking for alternative missions,' says Terry Lenzner, head of the Washington-based Investigative Group. 'And if it did sell its products to commercial interests, it would create very tough competition for us.'
The French security services, meanwhile, are just getting on with it. Earlier this year, French agents were caught stealing secrets from the US's V-22 Osprey aircraft project, to which the Americans responded by boycotting the Paris Air Show.
Many private investigators have stories of clients who have been targeted by the French security services. 'It's my clear impression that the French government is involved in commercial information,' one US-based investigator says. 'I have talked to French companies offering to do due diligence work for them, checking on the bona fides of potential business partners. They have said if they want it they will ask the government to get it for them.'
'The French as a matter of policy use their government apparatus to gain information about foreign companies that they perceive to be a threat to their national interests,' another investigator says.
Not only are they 'tremendously aggressive' in trying towin orders, they have never acknowledged any great difference between private and public work. A former Middle East arms salesman noted that while British sales people were normal company men, 'those from Thomson CSF could have been seconded from the diplomatic service'.
There seems little doubt that if the Americans join a game the French are already apparently playing, everyone else will have to do so too. Governments will bring all their James Bond gadgets into play. The Ministry of Defence already hides its computers in a special cage to stop the information being 'stolen' electronically. Satellites that are said to be able to read number plates have obvious applications; and the clerk at GCHQ would be kept very busy indeed.
Formal sanctioning of such a policy would raise sticky practical questions. First, how would MI6 decide whether to give information to GEC or British Aerospace, or both? Second, what would happen with a company that has no clear nationality: GEC-Alsthom, for example, or Royal Dutch Shell? For governments, the area would be a minefield.
In the meantime, the business of finding your rivals' secrets remains overwhelmingly in private hands. In the past year British Airways has been caught hacking into Virgin Atlantic's computer to try to lure away passengers. The rubbish bags of journalists writing about the case have allegedly been searched. Jose Ignacio Lopez de Arriortua has been accused of taking valuable documents from General Motors to Volkswagen. And in March the chief executive of National Car Parks and the head of its security firm were acquitted of conspiracy to defraud the rival Europarks. This, even though they had admitted carrying out a three-year operation that included surveillance of directors, rifling of dustbins and briefcases, and planting a personal assistant in the chairman's office.
These are the cases that came into the open. We can be sure that many more have been swept underthe carpet. David Benn, who runs the electronic surveillance company Lorraine Electronics, says he knows of public companies 'which have been hit for millions', but which have kept their losses to themselves.
'Ina number of cases directors could have gone to prison but have not,' he says, 'because what they took was worth less than the damage if shareholders found out and the stock value fell.'
Every company wants to know what its competitors are doing - that isgood business practice. But there is a new and growing activity that the Americans call 'competitive intelligence'. This starts in the white zone of legally gathered market intelligence, and ends in the blackness of straightforward theft. In the middle is a murky grey through which runs the borderline of industrial espionage.
It is a fruitful area: competition is based increasingly on 'speed to market' - getting your product out before your rival does - and nothing makes that easier than having his plans in your hands.
Private investigation companies operate on both sides of this fence. Some will help you with your competitive intelligence. All will help you to catch people who are giving away or selling your secrets.
The bigger groups such as Kroll have become ever more concerned about their image, and even talk of a licensing system to cut out the cowboys. 'In our view, getting involved in seeking information on competitors' products would be fraught with danger,' Patrick Grayson says. 'It's one thing for a brand manager to do it, but quite different if we do it. We probably lose business because we don't break laws.' Nevertheless, like the national security services, private investigators have had to become more aggressive to win business. During the Eighties they made their names investigating 'the other side' in hostile takeover battles. It is an open secret that during the ICI affair in 1991, it was Mr Lenzner's IGI that unearthed the embarrassing details of Hanson's unprofitable horse-breeding companies, for example.
Now some of the companies are becoming more active in 'competitive intelligence'. They do, however, have their own ethical and practical borders - they do not like to be caught, even though the National Car Parks case showed that it is remarkably difficult to prove that the most blatant snooping is against the law. None of the techniques used by NCP was illegal in itself. There had to be proof, which there was not, that it was trying to damage Europarks' commercial interests.
Every investigator is quite happy to use 'pretext phone calls' as a day-to- day tool, and will cheerfully glean commercial information in this way. 'We won't break into an office and steal blueprints,' one says. 'We might ring up and say we are looking for such and such a product, and ask if the company is manufacturing it. Or I might say I am a potential supplier, and ask about plans for the future.'
He admits he is sailing close to the wind. 'Youare lying, which is problematic, but you are also providing a service to a company that wants to make a better product itself.
'It is very important to have the right attitude,' he added. 'In business there is no such thing as fair - there is legal and ethical, but fair and unfair aren't terms that can be used.'
Furthermore, he says, 'competitive intelligence is very good for Joe on the street. It means products are constantly being updated, it keeps companies on their toes and it avoids monopolies.'
He admits, though, to a certain nationalism. 'We could be hired by a Japanese company trying to find out something a British company was doing. I would find that problematic.'
This investigator draws a line, albeit further on than some. But, he says: 'There are firms out there who will do anything. They will bug phones, beg, borrow and steal information.'
Another, who says his line lies further back, admits that it is difficult always to know which side of it he is treading. 'If a company comes to us and says it wants to know the formula of a competitor's shampoo, we will say no. But if it comes and says we want to make a bid, finding out the formula is part of due diligence and we will do it.'
Three of the top researchers in a pharmaceutical company left to set up a rival down the road. An investigator was asked to find out whether they were using the same technology, and with 'a bit of subterfuge', got someone - posing as a supplier, a customer or perhaps a technical journalist - on to a factory tour.
'We told our clients it was a different process. The next question was, well what is their process then? That was where we stopped.'
The heart of old-fashioned industrial espionage lies, in almost every case, not with secrets being stolen using electronic wizardry, but with human beings - disgruntled human beings, seduced human beings, or planted human beings.
National Car Parks' intelligence firm, KAS, managed to plant a former army captain as personal assistant to the chairman of Europarks. Much easier, and more common, is to find a rotten apple within the rival company and harvest it.
In the old days, disloyal employees might steal stock. Now, with so many companies selling intangible services, information is the most valuable commodity, not least because it is untraceable and is still there after it has been stolen. 'We see that type of disloyalty going on in many types of company,' Mr Benn says. 'And without the use of electronics, it is almost impossible to prove.'
Some of his clients are owners of minicab companies who believe that work is being siphoned off privately. Others are almost certainly big companies, though he rarely knows their names because motorcycle messengers will turn up, buy an order for bugging devices for cash, and disappear.
He tells of one manager who had built up asuccessful business which suddenly went into decline. He suspected one of his sales force, so tapped the phones.
He discovered it washis wife, who was having an affair with his main competitor. 'He lost his wife and the best part of his business.'
Mr Benn also knows of cases where disgruntled managers have applied for jobs with rivals, and have been persuaded to stay on for a while to gather secrets. Internal espionage has increased during the recession, he believes, as it has become more difficult to switch jobs 'normally'. In one case, two people were passing information about contracts to a rival, and were caught only when they started to steal stock.
Junior staff are vulnerable, he says. A secretary could be seduced, an office boy could be slipped pounds 50 for information that might be worth a fortune. 'You don't know where to start,' he says. 'You can't start accusing people.'
A company that suspects it is losing its secrets has two options - to lay a trap itself, or to call in an investigator.
Mr Benn's Lorraine Electronics has a discreet shop on a busy road in Leyton, north-east London. It also has three factories, and inside the shop David Robinson is demonstrating some of the products made in them. He disappears into a back room and talks into a Sheaffer pen - straight out of The Man from Uncle. He can be clearly heard through earphones plugged into a matchbox-size receiver. He repeats the trick with a calculator, a credit card, an adaptor and a two- plug socket.
He opens a briefcase. It seems empty, but is not. 'In boardroom conditions, a high-quality recording can be obtained by it over a distance of 30 feet,' Lorraine's brochure says.
Microphones run along the side and a tape recorder is hidden in a compartment. It is switchedon and off by opening the catch in a slightly special way.
Lorraine charges pounds 700 for the pen and calculator, and pounds 950 for the briefcase receiver with optional transmitter. All prices are without VAT, because none of them can be used without a licence in the UK.
Many of them are though, and Mr Benn defends their use. 'Companies very rarely use electronic devices to get information,' he says. 'They would have to get inside to plant it - how much easier to have someone feeding you information from within.' When he is asked to 'sweep' an office for bugs, he says, 'we find something one time in 100'.
Mr Lenzner agrees. 'There's a lot of paranoia about bugging,' he says. When his firm has been called in to stem a leak, he usually finds its source is a disgruntled or greedy employee.
Two months before a US computer firm was due to launch a product, its main rival came out with a near-identical one. This happened again and again, and the chairman called in IGI. 'He was convinced someone was selling information out the back door,' Mr Lenzner says.
'We asked for the name of anyone with access to the information who he knew was disgruntled. He came back with a list of 35 names, and we watched them. We finally identified the Xerox operator, who was making an extra copy of the plans and selling them on.'
Investigators - often former police men - tend to be sniffy about electronic gadgetry and do not, as many people assume, make ruthless use of former workmates in the force to give them instant access to all police and government records. 'There is nothing more boring than an ex-colleague coming and asking repeatedly for information,' one says.
What they will use to spot the rotten apple is a gamut of tried-and-tested intelligence techniques, most of which are tedious and lengthy. They will, for example, follow employees under suspicion. 'It's far more complicated and dangerous than on television,' one investigator says. He uses former policemen or security officers who are trained in the complex choreography of a proper surveillance, and charges about pounds 1,000 a day for their use.
Searches of rubbish bags are 'for people who don't know what else to do', one investigator says, but he concedes they can be fruitful. Any details of a direct debit will give a bank branch and account number, the first step towards finding whether the suspect is receiving bribes.
Searching a rubbish bag per se is not illegal; but doing it on someone else's property is trespass. So, the investigator says, 'the clever guys go to where the rubbish is going'.
With a bank branch and account number in hand, the investigator will find out its details, not by hacking into a computer system ('fantasy stuff', one sniffs), but by ringing up and asking. The 'pretext phone call' is the bread-and-butter technique.
Pretend you are someone you are not - a business partner, a relative - combine that with a plausible story and a dose of charm, and you can find out almost anything.
Even Swiss bank accounts are not necessarily impenetrable. The investigator will not hack his way into a computer system, nor will he bribe a staff member. Rather, he will try to find someone close to the target, and ease the information out of him or her. 'The trick is to find where the information is, and persuade the person to give it to me,' one investigator says. 'It's 90 per cent who you know, 10 per cent what you know.'
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