One third of Swiss companies are spied on

In Switzerland there are many highly-specialised industrial firms. © Keystone / Christian Beutler

With its research institutes, international organizations and highly specialised firms, Switzerland is attractive to spies. For the first time a study shows the extent of this industrial espionage.

This content was published on January 30, 2020 - 15:00

A typical example: Someone uses social networks to connect with an employee at a Swiss company and get insight into production methods. Later, similar but much cheaper products appear on the market, causing the Swiss company’s sales to plummet, threatening its very existence.

Cases like this are on the rise. Industrial espionage has increased greatly in recent years, but there weren’t any reliable figures for Switzerland until now. Companies often don’t notice that they’ve been spied on. Or they refrain from reporting it to the authorities for fear of losing their reputation.

One in three

In order to improve prevention, the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS)External link has commissioned the Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology at the University of Bern to investigate the extent of industrial espionage in Switzerland.

The recently published studyExternal link reveals something astonishing: one third of the companies surveyed stated that they had been victims of industrial espionage at least once. Some 11% said they were at risk of going out of business as a result of the spying. The results are consistent with a study from Germany, where one in three small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) was a victim of industrial espionage.

A full comparison of Switzerland to other countries was not part of the investigation. “The important conclusion of the study is that Switzerland is affected and to a serious extent,” says Irene Marti from the Institute for Criminal Law and Criminology.

Large companies of international renown as well as SMEs are being spied on. The sectors of mechanical engineering, pharmaceuticals and life sciences are the most affected, but construction, IT, telecommunications, publishing, space technology and the arms industry are also typical targets.

Who is spying?

In most cases it is difficult to identify the perpetrator, especially if the company was spied on via cyber attacks.

“According to the statements of the companies surveyed, the cases discovered often involved former or current employees of the company, sometimes in collaboration with a competitor,” says Marti. In 10% of the cases it was a competitor from abroad.

For the most part, the spies were based in Switzerland, Germany, China or Italy.

How dangerous is espionage?

Industrial espionage poses a serious threat to Switzerland, especially considering future technological developments.

“The digital possibilities are becoming more and more diverse. At the same time business data and business communication are becoming increasingly digital, which means that the espionage options are getting more extensive as well as easier in terms of technology,” says Marti.

FIS, which has been running the ProphylaxExternal link prevention and awareness program since 2004, is also taking the matter seriously.

“Based on this study, concrete figures and reliable data on the number of cases, the perpetrators, actual damages and affected sectors are available for the first time,” says Lea Rappo of the intelligence service. The results make it possible for FIS to tailor Prophylax even more closely to the needs of its clients and to protect Switzerland’s research and business entities more efficiently.

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