Dawn R. Elm, Ph.D.

Ethics and Business Law Department,

University of St. Thomas

Opus College of Business

Ask the consultant: How to protect against industrial espionage

  • November 25, 2012 - 10:53 AM


People are using online forums and social media to undermine business. We used to trust those we worked with and they had no reach. But now there is a reach, and that trust is no longer there. What can be done when proprietary information has been shared on forums and spread worldwide by these groups?



You have uncovered an unscrupulous business practice using social media as a tool. The practice is called industrial espionage and has always been considered unethical and, at times, illegal.

The Internet and social media are integral elements of business today. The scope of information and communication allowed by current technology is beyond capabilities 10 years ago, allowing us to be more honest and transparent. But that also means more opportunity for unethical practices.

In this instance, members of a private online forum are colluding to gather and share proprietary business information. This not only violates the principle of fair competition, but it's also dishonest. Practicing business in this fashion destroys the trust of both businesspeople and customers to engage in an open exchange of goods and services.

There are several things that can be done to help. The first is to educate people about these types of practices to increase awareness. Recall the educational efforts that took place to eliminate extensive "cold calling'' in the 1990s. Increased awareness and concern led to the establishment of "do-not-call" lists to reduce telephone solicitations.

In this instance, we could use the Internet and social media to create an awareness campaign. Posting on numerous social media sites, blogs, public forums and elsewhere about the existence of this particular forum and possibly others like it could lead to increased awareness and concern for the unfair and dishonest practices involved. It should also provide feedback to would-be thieves that this is not a behavior to be tolerated.

Another course of action is to report this and similar forums to the Better Business Bureau and the attorney general. While the bureau might not have the capabilities to deal with these types of technological advances in business, it would be an excellent way to start ensuring social media usage is consistent with ethical business practices.

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