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Crime

Corporate espionage: The spy in your cubicle

Even as business crimes decrease, many firms fear industrial espionage more than ever. While the NSA may give them headline-grabbing grounds for feeling that way, the perpertrator is most likely on the company's payroll.

At a trade fair, the head of a company discovers a machine developed by his own employees - but at the stand of a competitor, where the new item is proudly displayed. Looking through his company's inventory, he sees four new printers, even though he in fact ordered five. And to top things off, he's having problems with the state prosecutors, who say his firm is implicated in a bribery charge. His company, in short, has fallen victim to industrrial espionage - three times over.

Since 2001, some 61 percent of German companies have fallen prey to these or similar crimes. In 2013, by comparison, just 45 percent of German firms were entangled in such an affair. Those were the conclusions of a study conducted by business consulting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers (PCW) together with Martin Luther University in Halle-Wittenberg (MLU). For the study, more than 600 German companies, each with at least 500 employees, were examined every two years.

'Increasingly safe'

The recent slide in levels of business crimes is not a singularity, says Kai Bussman, co-author of the study and a criminologist at MLU. The drop points instead toward a trend.

"We have a society that's becoming increasingly safe," he told DW. In general, it can be said that "Crime in Germany has been falling for years, or is hovereing at a low level - and in the area of business crimes, the tendency is to fall."

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At PCW, Steffen Salvenmoser attributes the decrease in crime to a change in company culture over the last few years. Ever since higher international standards came into effect, with bribery outlawed and punished more frequently, many companies have developed a new code of conduct. They oblige their employees to adhere to the law, raise awareness of corruption and conduct prevention programs. Clearly, he says, it's increasingly successful.

"We're operating on the assumption that the message has been received," says Salvenmoser, referring to the corruption and bribery scandals that engulfed some of Germany's best known companies over the last decade, like Siemens, ThyssenKrupp, Deutsche Bank.

A cloud hangs over

As more details about NSA spying activities continue to be made public, alarm has increased among many German firms. Particularly worried are the companies that store sensitive information on off-site computer servers - somewhere far off in the so-called "cloud." According to Salvenmoser, those concerns are increasing.

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"About 15 percent of those companies are now saying that they're thinking seriously about switching to European providers for cloud computing," he said. That said, it doesn't constitute a general trend, since "roughly 60 percent aren't taking the NSA affair as an occasion to change their dealings with the cloud."

At the same time in the areas of "industrial espionage, economic espionage and the leaking of work and business secrets," there have been frighteningly high numbers of suspected cases. And there could be far more, the analyst added, since being spied upon doesn't necessarily mean that you know it's happening. Corruption ends with prosecutors knocking at the door; an inventory check usually clears up theft. But with spying, "Nothing is gone."

Enemy within

Nor do criminals of the economic variety dash over fences during the night or hack their way into the firm's hard drives via the Internet. Many of the crimes are carried out by employees within thecompany.

"You can assume that about half of all business crimes will come from within your own ranks," Salvenmoser says.

For companies, it's a bitter pill twice over. First, insiders know where to hit the company hardest as well as where to find the most critical information. Second, it's simply disappointing. "People I work with every day, who I talk to every day - I don't expect that," explained Salvenmoser. "With those people, I have a very special sense of trust."

But even here, says criminologist Kai Bussman, corporate culture has an effect - if also a negative one.

A company's own behavior colors the way employees behave toward the company. Such criminals, therefore, often work in "companies that do not place any value on fair dealings with customers, so they should not be surprised when their own employees help themselves," he said.

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