GM boss voices concern over industrial espionage

The chief executive of one of the world's biggest car makers has acknowledged that industrial espionage is a major threat to the company that worries him "every day".

General Motors' chief executive, Dan Akerson – speaking as revelations of leaked corporate secrets rocked rival Renault – said he is sure there are "attacks on GM's intellectual property". "I worry about it every day," Mr Akerson said, expressing sympathy with Renault's plight. "I don't know of any individual cases but I'm sure it's happening."

The issue of corporate espionage has shot to the top of executive agendas after Renault suspended three managers last week on suspicion of leaking details of the company's electric vehicle programme and thereby "putting company assets at risk".

Along with partner Nissan, Renault has invested €4bn (£3.33bn) in developing electric cars, a key competitive battleground as the global automotive industry battles to adapt to ever-rising petrol prices and the implications of climate change.

Industry insiders point to Chinese companies as the most likely beneficiaries of stolen data from Renault. But the French company – which is expected to start dismissal proceedings against at least one of the three suspects this week – has not confirmed any details about the recipient of the alleged leaks.

The sheer scale of the world's biggest industrial companies makes theft of crucial corporate information an ever-present threat. "With 200,000 employees worldwide, even just a tenth of 1 per cent is 200 people, and you only need one spy," Mr Akerson said. "All it needs is one person to make you look foolish, so I'm not going to say we don't have one." Mr Akerson said that while GM "wants to win" the competitive race, the company "would not tolerate" spying of any kind.

Following the Renault revelations, the French government is reviewing the legislation protecting business secrets. Eric Besson, France's Industry minister, is proposing to put the penalties for theft of industrial secrets on a par with those for traditional defence espionage.

The problems at Renault came to light after a four-month investigation. But the company says that the leaks appear to focus on the cost and financing of the electric vehicle programme, rather than technical details.