Somebody, somewhere will be watching you: Declan Butler explains how it's not only duchesses on holiday in France who are the targets of espionage

Click to follow
ARE YOU expecting a visit from MI5 today? Or has the possibility never crossed your mind? You may only produce yoghurt, manufacture rainwear or research reinforced concrete, but the secret services may soon call to schedule an appointment. That is if MI5 follows the lead of its French equivalent, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST).

This previously discreet organisation has now come out into the open. Last year, DST agents staged more than 660 roadshows, attended by more than 25,000 business people and scientists in workplaces across the country. Their aim? To heighten awareness to the increasing risks of industrial espionage.

The DST claims its advice has struck a chord with businessmen, but admits that scientists, traditionally committed to openness, have yet to be won over. But even here attitudes are changing. It says 'increasing collaboration with industry' and events such as the US/French dispute over ownership of an Aids test have shaken French researchers out of the notion that scientists are members of one big happy family.

France is aware of the perils of industrial espionage. It has been spying on its competitors' technologies and marketing strategies for years. This was revealed last year in Newsweek by Pierre Marion, chief of the French equivalent of MI6 in the early Eighties. Last November he told of the ease with which 'waiters' and even 'flight attendants', often fitted with hid-

den microphones, spied on business


What now worries the French is that the increasing globalisation of business and technology is leaving them vulnerable to similar practices. 'More and more French companies and laboratories have joint ventures and collaborations with foreign partners, oblivious to the risks these bring,' laments one of the DST officials I met at the organisation's headquarters in Paris.

Industrial espionage now accounts for almost two-thirds of all spying, according to the DST, which is expanding its activities in this area and claims its campaign is 'better developed' than those of MI5 and other European services.

'Our first objective is to make people more conscious of the risks (of industrial espionage) and of the commonsense precautions needed,' explained an official. 'The French need to learn to shut up,' paraphrases the DST's most basic advice. More than three-quarters of what the DST terms industrial espionage simply involves organised collection of information already available to the public (at conferences, exhibitions etc). Delegates attending conferences are urged to say 'no more than is necessary'. Scientists are advised to think twice before publishing, and to exercise restraint when they do. If you don't already throw questionnaires away, you should, advises the DST, which reckons that many are sent out by foreign intelligence gatherers.

The DST also recommends that practices such as identification badges, restricted access and safes for all confidential documents be introduced into everyday workplaces to guard against the enemy within: foreign workers and visitors should be informed only on a 'need to know' basis. The DST also revealed that it now vets foreign applicants for senior positions in France.

Getting into industrial espionage in France is not that difficult. A flick through the Paris Yellow Pages turns up 16 pages of detective agencies alone, offering a range of services: 'Commercial, industrial and financial investigations'; 'unfair competition inquiries'; 'employee vetting'; 'industrial contra-espionage'; and 'information research'. DST officials say they don't care if French firms spy on each other, but are concerned that some detective agencies and consultancies are simply fronts for foreign intelligence-gathering operations.

Indeed, such agencies often boast technical competencies to rival the state's own services. One Paris agency can offer morning delivery of all of your competitors' faxes (a marked improvement on the past method of collecting and sifting competitors' rubbish bins). A phone tap will set you back FFr30,000 ( pounds 3,150) if you are an individual customer, up to FFr200,000 ( pounds 21,000) if you represent a company. Surveillance and bugging options offer a veritable Argos catalogue of electronic hardware.

While the DST can advise of hi-tech solutions to modern espionage techniques, its roadshow is more concerned with persuading people to become more aware and exercise simple precautions - 'to develop a reflex'. Its advice is breathtaking: 'Don't talk business in aeroplanes or in hotel rooms'; 'avoid using the telephone'; 'never use the fax for anything except the most mundane correspondence'; 'never put confidential documents in your airline baggage'.

The DST says that it does not want to slow down co-operation or create is a 'Reds under every bed' psychology among workers. But French industry is already one of the most secretive in Europe. Combine the DST's enlargement of what constitutes sensitive material with a French press generally reputed to have the investigative ferocity of a neutered poodle, and you have the makings of a threat to democracy.

The DST cannot be accused of being xenophobic. Officials say that the battle is becoming less a matter of France versus the world than of Europe versus North America and the countries of the Pacific Rim. The DST says it has 'started talks with MI5 and other European services to form a European organisation'. This process is already under way: DST officials revealed that Europe's contra-espionage organisations have drawn up a strategy document to protect the 8.84bn ecu ( pounds 6.4bn) Eureka European research programme.

As I went to leave the office in DST headquarters in Paris, I pulled on the first door I came across. 'That's not the way out,' explained my anonymous hosts. 'I know,' I retorted, my nose suddenly squashed up against a wall of files, 'I just wanted to take a look in your cupboard.'

(Photograph omitted)