Firms warned to watch out for foreign spies

Intelligence services have shifted their focus to economic targets

The government is advising Swiss firms to be on their guard against industrial espionage.

This content was published on September 1, 2004 - 18:33

It follows a recent report on internal security in Switzerland which warned that the Russian secret service was increasingly targeting foreign businesses.

According to the Federal Police Office, companies working in the financial, research and technology sectors are most at risk.

“We still have numerous intelligence services all over the world that are charged with providing information for their governments and their economy,” Jürg Bühler, deputy head of analysis and prevention at the Federal Police Office, told swissinfo.

Bühler said the Federal Police Office had contacted more than 100 firms thought to be most at risk of being spied on.

He said the biggest threat came from countries lacking technological know-how, and nations involved in producing weapons of mass destruction.

But he warned that western intelligence services were also active in the field of industrial espionage.

Major concern

Zurich-based engineering group ABB, a global leader in power and automation technologies, told swissinfo that spying was a major worry for the Swiss-Swedish concern.

“ABB is a technology company, so we’re dealing with a lot of sensitive information,” said spokesman Wolfram Eberhardt.

The company said it had not encountered any problems, pointing out that it had taken precautionary measures such as installing a firewall on its systems to prevent outsiders from breaking in.

Security is also a serious issue for the Basel-based pharmaceuticals giant, Novartis.

“Detailed internal guidelines do exist and we have introduced a wide range of measures to ensure security in all fields,” said spokesman Bruno Hofer.

Two years ago the company signed a charter – along with Roche and Serono – regulating access to laboratories and banning the use of some substances.

The aim was to reduce the risk of products stored or made by the three companies ending up as raw material for the creation of biological weapons.

Foreign spooks

Bühler said industrial espionage was not a new phenomenon to Switzerland. Between 1992 and 2001, there were 31 known cases involving foreign secret services caught spying on Swiss soil.

He added that intelligence services worldwide had increasingly shifted their focus from military and political targets to economic ones.

This in turn had required the Federal Police Office to respond to the new threat, setting up a programme to alert businesses to the danger.

Measures taken so far include the distribution of a brochure, detailing the risk of espionage, and asking cantonal police forces to visit firms on their patch.

“It’s a double-issue programme for raising the awareness of Swiss enterprises against espionage… and the proliferation of technology used to produce weapons of mass destruction,” explained Bühler.

“It’s up to [companies] to identify what their really important secrets are, and then to take measures to protect them.”

According to Bühler, companies that are the victims of espionage rarely pass on the details to the authorities for fear of damaging both their reputation and their stock market price.

He said a favourite way of spying on firms and institutions was through scientist and student exchanges.

He gave the example of Abdul Qader Khan, the father of the atomic bomb in Pakistan, who was educated in Europe.

Foreign intelligence services also used universities and hospitals as cover to obtain sensitive information, added Bühler.

swissinfo, Katalin Fekete

Key facts

From 1992 to 2001 there were 31 known cases of espionage in Switzerland by foreign secret services.
They involved 58 people from different nationalities.
Fewer than 10 cases of espionage are reported to the authorities each year.

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In brief

The Federal Police Office has published a report on spying, noting an increase in industrial espionage carried out by foreign intelligence services.

Over the past few years, their activities have shifted from military and political targets to economic ones.

Police have launched a programme to make Swiss companies more aware of the dangers.

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In compliance with the JTI standards

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