Fear of being left behind is driving corporate spying into the mainstream of Australian IT, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) survey.
More than 30 per cent of 1200 private and public organisations surveyed in Australia had lost intellectual property in the game of competitive intelligence gathering, which has become highly sophisticated.
Richard Batten, PwC director of dispute analysis and investigations, said many companies have formed intelligence-gathering units and often they are staffed by former government intelligence agency operatives with proven track records in obtaining military and economic secrets.
Sometimes the existence of these units within a company is unknown to outsiders and companies may even take the next step of implementing an intelligence plan to prevent competitor intrusions.
"This level of sophistication in spying on other companies makes it imperative that companies do not ignore the problem and take action to protect themselves," Batten said.
The report points out that respondents have considered the value of gaining competitive intelligence and devote resources to this process yet fail to consider the risk to their own business from similar activity.
Significantly, 40 per cent of incidents reported were caused by people within a trusted relationship, up 12 per cent from the last survey in 1998; customer lists and similar data were the main target areas.
The PwC study recommends organisations have a proprietary information protection program, which includes staff training, to safeguard intellectual property assets.
"Investigators and intelligence operatives gain their most useful information by talking to people; the telephone is an essential tool so staff need to know how to manage unsolicited telephone queries," the report said.
Of all the industry sectors surveyed, it was IT that made the most use of technical surveillance counter measures (TSCM). Only about a quarter of organisations used TSCM but this figure jumped to 38 per cent in the high-tech sector.
"These results suggest that respondents have not considered that their information may be vulnerable to electronic interception; organisations should be aware that intelligence gatherers can and do use illegal electronic interception methods to gain information," the report said.