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Espionage: out of the movies and into the boardroom

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Corporate espionage is on the rise in South Africa and the rest of the world, leading to a boom in demand for counter-surveillance solutions.

That's according to Etienne Labuschagne, director of SpyCatcher South Africa, which supplies personal security, surveillance and counter-surveillance solutions. He says that many executives would be surprised to discover just how common the use of covert listening and video recording devices has become in cutthroat industries where knowledge is power.
"Espionage is in the headlines again, with the Democratic Alliance's Helen Zille alleging that the National Intelligence Agency is listening in on her calls," says Labuschagne. "As common as espionage and counter-espionage are in political circles, we are also seeing interest in counter-surveillance from the unlikeliest companies who believe they are under surveillance."
Labuschagne notes that high-tech surveillance equipment has become increasingly affordable and compact in recent years, putting it within easy reach of nearly anyone that wants to spy on someone else. A tough economic climate has also prompted some people and companies to resort to desperate measures to gain a competitive edge.
Devices straight out of a James Bond film – such as a high-definition video camera hidden in a watch or pens and computer mice with GSM transmitters that allow someone to eavesdrop on a conversation – are legally available for the cost of a few thousand Rand.
"As a result, it has become easier than ever before for unethical companies to spy on their competitors, customers and other people they are doing business with," says Labuschagne. "Some use the technology to acquire competitive intelligence, such as a rival's product launch schedule or details about the pricing it offers a key client. In other cases, a company that plans to buy another may try to listen in on boardroom conversations to gather information it can use to drive the purchasing price down." In one infamous example of corporate espionage, HP in the US spied on the members of its own board.
Labuschagne says that counter-surveillance equipment has also become more affordable in recent years, making it cost-effective and relatively simple for companies to protect their confidential information from prying eyes.
One example is a covert white noise generator that effectively blocks any microphone-based listening device by generating an unfilterable sound which varies in frequency and amplitude. Camera finders, handheld bug detectors, GSM signal blockers and encrypted cellphones also offer executives the means to protect sensitive information during confidential meetings.
"Many companies invest millions of Rand in securing their computer equipment against hackers, yet take no precautions against surveillance equipment that offers anyone who wants to steal their information a far cheaper and simpler way to do so. It is in every company's interests to protect their confidential data and intellectual property at every point where it is vulnerable."