3 Ways Corporate Spies Might Be Watching Your Business and How to Stop Them

They're more sophisticated and covert than ever

Business is a game of constant competition, but the widespread emergence of covert surveillance and tracking tools has expanded the playbook. Now, industrial espionage has a new dimension.

Paul Everton Alex Fine

In the corporate world, the practice is nothing new. In fact, it's been a marketing tactic for decades. As its name suggests, industrial espionage involves companies deploying spying schemes to gain privileged actionable intelligence about business competitors. But the digital age has given corporate spying a new face. And with the modern proliferation of web-based spying options, corporate surveillance is more sophisticated and covert than ever.

Today, corporate spies for hire carry titles like "Competitive Intelligence Analyst" and "Competitive Market Strategist." There are many lucrative opportunities for these workers. And they might be watching your business right now. Here are three of the ways they do it—and also how to dodge their efforts.

Monitoring online mentions
One of the easiest and most commonly used ways corporate spies track competitors is by monitoring their online mentions via various tools. As Kissmetrics' blog points out, Google Alerts sits atop this list. Not only is it a straightforward tool that provides organizations with constant notifications when they're competitors are mentioned via social or other web platforms—it's also free. Other widely used tools include Buzzsumo, which monitors social mentions, and Competitive Research & Keyword Research Gadget.

Because these resources are so widely available and economical, there's no way to counter their use. But companies can prevent them from being used more deviously by competitors by monitoring coverage to ensure they get out ahead of any negative publicity.

However, the act of monitoring can be cumbersome for certain businesses, particularly smaller organizations without the dedicated personnel to carry it out. That's why enterprises often turn to reputation management companies to handle the job for them. For enterprises choosing to go this route, it's important to comprehensively vet a prospective reputation management partner based on cost, transparency and the relevance of services offered. Because these companies cover a broad range of offerings and are often highly industry- and service-specific, it's imperative to find the right reputation manager for your business. For example, if your business is looking to optimize its SEO strategy, then look for a reputation management service specifically geared toward SEO consulting.

Capitalizing on negative employee reviews 
While many marketers use tools like Buzzsumo and Google Alerts solely to ascertain where they stand, the uses can get shadier. In some cases, for instance, a company spy may use a site like Google Alerts to closely monitor any negative reviews its closest business competitor receives on sites like Glassdoor and Ripoff Report. From there, the spy might attempt to share these negative reviews with the competitors' top customers.

Because Glassdoor, Ripoff Report and other similar sites are open forums for user-submitted content, companies can't hope to eliminate the negative reviews their competitors may be sharing. But they can significantly mitigate the negative impact by actively engaging with the reviews on these sites. By constructively responding to negative employee-contributed reviews, companies can undermine the efforts of corporate spies hoping to fuel negative sentiment by directing customers to this content.

Spymail 
Spymail is a more sophisticated and insidious industrial espionage technique. The process involves embedding hidden tracking code in emails that allows the sender to uncover data about the recipient. Spymail reveals when and where you open it and forward it. At the very least, corporate senders of spymail can use this metadata to monitor individual employees. At the worst, they can harness it to mount phishing and social engineering attacks.

Consider this hypothetical, and malicious, scenario: a company could use spymail to track the geographic movements of a competitor's highest-ranking IT personnel, since all these staffers would have to do is open an email with spymail to reveal their exact location. By tracking these movement changes, the company could determine when its rival is most vulnerable—say, when the head of IT is on a plane to a conference—and use this moment to launch a cyberattack on the competitor carried out by a hacker for hire.

In recent years, spymail has grown exponentially, and today there are nearly 3 million people using email trackers. Among them are sophisticated marketers and corporate spies using it to dig up confidential information. To stop spymail from putting them at a competitive disadvantage—not to mention weakening their corporate cybersecurity and employee safety—companies should consider deploying an enterprise-grade anti-spymail solution.

Industrial espionage poses a significant risk to businesses across all sectors. It's important for all companies to recognize the ways corporate spies are using sophisticated tools to undermine competitors. By taking proactive steps to counter these tactics, businesses can watch their back to avoid negative, and potentially catastrophic, fallout.

Paul Everton is the founder and CEO of MailControl, an anti-spymail solution that detects and removes email tracking code from emails before they are delivered to user inboxes.

This story first appeared in the November 28, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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