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FBI to Blitz Public With Economic Espionage Ads

Today, the FBI is doing something it rarely does — talking, in public, about spies.

In a nationwide advertising campaign launching today that includes bus shelters, billboards and a website, the FBI is targeting corporate espionage — and encouraging employees of American corporations to be wary of spies in their midst.

A gloved hand taking confidential files
Tetra Images RF | Getty Images
A gloved hand taking confidential files

“We’re doing something we’ve never done before, and it’s almost counterintuitive in the espionage business,” FBI Counterintelligence Assistant director Frank Figliuzzi told CNBC Thursday. “We’re talking to the general public about the threat from economic espionage.”

The FBI says the sheer scale of economic espionage against the nation’s top companies threatens America’s economic and technical dominance of the global economy.

According to Figliuzzi, the current FBI caseload shows that secrets worth more than $13 billion have been stolen from American companies — often by insiders or former insiders at the companies that have been victimized. The FBI says its arrests for economic espionage have doubled in the last four years, and that it has already surpassed last year’s arrest total halfway through this fiscal year.

Figliuzzi said espionage has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. “The target has changed to unclassified or what I like to call pre-classified technology, data research, the things that we all have at our place of employment, and we need to make the general public aware that the threat is to them and where they work,” Figliuzzi said. “They want what America has.”

The billboards and bus shelters will be visible in cities and regions that the FBI chose for their high concentrations of government contractors, including Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and North Carolina.

In recent months, US law enforcement agencies have wrestled with a large variety of corporate espionage cases that affected companies as diverse as Bridgestone, DuPont, and Motorola.

In February, a federal grand jury in San Francisco charged five people and five companies with economic espionage and theft of trade secrets for trying to obtain secrets surrounding the development of chloride-route titanium dioxide (TiO2), a white pigment with various industrial uses. Among those charged were two former DuPont employees. In that case, the U.S. government said that the government of the People’s Republic of China had specifically targeted the TiO2 production capabilities for exploitation.

Also that month, a former software engineer for Motorola was found guilty of stealing trade secrets from that company. The Defendant, Hanjuan Jin, possessed more than 1,000 proprietary documents when she was stopped by U.S. customs officials while attempting to travel on a one-way ticket to China in 2007, the government said.

In April, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio charged Dr. Xiaorong Wang with theft of trade secrets from Bridgestone. Wang was a former research scientist at the Bridgestone Center for Research and Technology in Akron, Ohio from May 1995 until he was terminated on April 14, 2010, the government said.

And in one of the most high-profile cases to date, satellite scientist Stewart David Nozette was sentenced in March to 13 years in prison for attempted espionage and other charges. Nozette was caught on camera in an FBI sting at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, attempting to sell U.S. satellite secrets to a man he believed to be an agent of the Israeli Mossad intelligence service.

“They’re looking for everything from price lists to the latest pharmaceutical research, marketing strategies, new product information — typically whatever you view as your crown jewels at your company is likely the target of foreign economic espionage,” Figliuzzi said.

Although many of the recent cases to surface publicly involve people stealing corporate secrets on behalf of the Chinese, Figliuzzi said the FBI’s latest publicity effort is not specifically targeting any one country.

“What we’re seeing across our caseload is even some of our allies, when it's in their economic interest, will commit economic espionage. They know it’s cheaper to steal our technology than to research and develop it,” Figliuzzi said. “There’s an over-emphasis, I think, on pointing to one or two countries, when we’ve seen a panoply of countries.”

The FBI says foreign spies are interested in a wide range of secret corporate information, including, information and communications technology, sources of scarce natural resources, military technologies, particularly marine systems and unmanned aerial vehicles, and dual-use technologies from the clean energy, pharmaceutical and agriculture sectors.

In its prepared materials, the FBI highlights some of the elements that make up the profile of a potential spy, telling companies to watch out for people exhibiting a range of behaviors, including:

  • Working odd hours without authorization
  • Taking proprietary information home in thumb drives or email
  • Making unnecessary copies
  • Disregarding company policies about installing personal software or hardware
  • Taking short trips to foreign countries for unexplained reasons
  • Buying things they can’t afford
  • Being overwhelmed by life crises or career disappointments

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