According to the Associated Press, a former security manager for the ride-hailing service Uber claimed in court on November 28th, 2017, that the company used former CIA officers to spy on its commercial rivals overseas.  Former Uber “manager of global intelligence,” Richard Jacobs, stated that Uber “hired several contractors that employed former CIA agents to help the ride-hailing service infiltrate its rivals’ computers,” according to the AP.

The information came out in a San Francisco, CA, courtroom during a pre-trial hearing involving Google spinoff Waymo’s lawsuit that accuses Uber of stealing its self-driving car technology.  Proceedings for Waymo’s lawsuit were scheduled to begin on December 4th, but have now been delayed by the presiding U.S. District Judge so that Waymo has additional time to collect more evidence.

The former Uber security manager’s testimony arrived amid revelations that federal prosecutors were investigating Uber for allegedly utilizing such an espionage team to steal trade secrets from its rivals.  According to the AP, Jacobs was Uber’s manager of global intelligence from March 2016 until he was fired in April 2017.  Jacob’s lawyer provided a 37-page letter summarizing the espionage allegations against Uber, also stating that the company tried to conceal the activities by employing computers and software designed to hide a digital trail.  The letter also argued that Jacobs was wrongfully demoted and then fired by Uber for attempting to stop the company from employing such tactics.

It presently remains unclear the full extent to which the company was using such espionage measures to steal secrets.  Were the Uber-employed contractors performing physical surveillance of rival employees in order to ascertain their account and password information?  Were they planting digital surveillance devices on rival computer systems to steal secrets?  Did they use moles inside the rival companies to plant such malware or steal physical documents?

At this time, the details remain murky, nor is it completely clear that the contractors in question were in-fact former employees of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Such a phenomenon would not be surprising, however, as there are a number of corporate intelligence firms that employ former CIA officers to gain a competitive advantage.

Often such personnel will be called “Competitive Intelligence Analysts,” or something similar, and they will be employed as contractors for a firm’s marketing division, for example.  As contractors, such employees have a degree of plausible deniability and distance from the employer company.  They are then provided direction, such as collect certain types of information using whatever means necessary and possible.  They will then be told not to break any laws, though such proscriptions are often viewed as pro-forma, and taken with a wink and a nod.

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In general, such corporate intelligence collectors will approach salesmen of the rival companies and act as potential buyers to solicit detailed pricing information and capabilities of the competitors.  The intelligence collectors will also seek out disgruntled ex-employees of the rival company and try to elicit actionable corporate intelligence from them using traditional collection techniques such as rapport-building and elicitation.

Some former intelligence officers are also occasionally employed as counter-intelligence personnel by companies, who task them with detecting and preventing theft of trade secrets.  This would entail monitoring computer systems and employee behaviors to attempt to ascertain if secrets are flowing out of the company.

Finally, it is not just private firms that attempt to steal such trade secrets, as national governments also get into the game and often use more sophisticated measures to acquire corporate intelligence.  The Chinese are notorious for such activities, but Western governments — such as France’s — have also been named in the press as participants in corporate espionage.

Certainly more details will emerge in the course of Uber’s legal difficulties, and just as certainly companies will take measures to avoid being the victims of such activities in the future.  Some will also surely continue to employ such methods, and try to stay just on the right side of the law in gaining a competitive advantage.

Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.