Competitive Intelligence

Tactical, Operational & Strategic Analysis of Markets, Competitors & Industries

Competitive Intelligence versus Espionage

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Not sure I totally agree with this. It implies that some espionage techniques are legal. 

I've always used the definition that CI is legal & ethical - with some gray areas, depending on your definition of ethical.

Espionage is always illegal and as a result, unethical.

This means that there is no overlap - and the two approaches should never be confused. I'd go so far as to say even attempting to suggest an overlap indicates that the two can be considered equivalent in some cases.


What about OSINT? I don't think that this valuable source is neglected by the services. Public argument here:

Political Espionage uses lethal Human Intelligence tools such as : MICE - Money, Ideology, Compromise and Ego

Corruption is NOT a disease but a tool of Subversion used for Sabotage.

Espionage is legal and ethical for the Government that uses its operators to serve its National Interest.

However,  if a Competitor (read as Enemy) uses it, then it is unethical. Any operator who works for the enemy, is then, tried for Treason. 

Espionage techniques / tactics  become illegal when and if they are used by the Private ie Corporate World.

Espionage is legal for the Government that uses it to serve its National Interest. We cannot compare Government techniques or tactics or extraction tools which serve National Interest, with a Firm or Company's Vision / Mission. 

What is legal and ethical for the Government serving its National Interest, is illegal for the Corporate World as Propreitorships, Partnerships and Private Limited Companies and Deemed Limited Companies and Public Limited Companies are not the Government and are not serving the National Interest.

If any private operator working for MNC's as a front  is caught by Counter Intelligence team of any Government working for the enemy,  then the penalty Political Espionage amounts to Treason or Spying.

Penalty for Treason is Death or if one is lucky it is Life imprisonment.

Playing grounds are entirely different, Political Espionage is used by Governments serving its National Interest and Corporate world is not, or cannot be allowed, to indulge in Espionage as Corporate serve personal interest of the shareholders.

It is advisable to be legal and ethical, provided one wants to live longer and not being shot or tried for Treason or Spying.

In lighter vein:

Spy vs Spy - High Bed


Espionage is always illegal as it hurts existing laws in all countries - the aim of espionage is to obtain core information / data about economic, military, political, scientific, .... targets with the help of unethical and illegal means. Only the reason that it is conducted by "Government" to serve national interests does not make it legal.

There is a clear distinction between Espionage and Competitive Intelligence and I agree with Arthur that there is NO overlap.

Best, Udo

I agree that CI is totally LEGAL. Even when some grey areas are touched it is still a question related to cultural values and not a legal matter. Considering both its aims and its means (tools, techniques, resources, ...) Competitive Intelligence is always legal.

Espionage is always illegal if we see it by its aims - I agree. We say that espionage appeals to illegal means (tools, techniques, ...) but are all these means entirely illegal?! I agree that most of them are illegal but really all?! I mentioned above an example explaining how the modern espionage supposes a lot of analyses of public information (see, an activity that by itself is a legal one - am I wrong? Even if only 1% of espionage's activity consists in processing the publicly available information (legal activity), can we consider the espionage entirely illegal? That's my question.

@Udo Hohlfeld,

Of course Espionage is illegal for the government whose data is stolen and espionage tools are illegal for the corporate world.

In the race for Economic Supremacy of Nations, I wonder what is legal in National Interest is not legal for Corporate Interest.

But maybe they should have used Competitive Intelligence rather than Human Intelligence tools to catch Osama Bin Laden.

I wonder why they did not use ONLY Competitive Intelligence tools while hunting Osama Bin Laden.

Every tool has its Pros and Cons and Fixes.

Since purpose and targets are different, therefore Espionage tactics are legal for that agency which extracts information to serve its National Interest, of course espionage will be illegal to the counter-intelligence section of any government whose data is stolen.

For corporate using espionage tools is illegal and for Governments espionage tools are legal for the extracting intelligence agency and illegal for the counter intelligence agency whose data is stolen.

Maybe SCIP should preach to CIA and FSB and Mossad to use ONLY Competitive Intelligence tools.

One's  target segment is the enemy  and businesses  target segment are just markets.

I am in no away advocating espionage but getting you to see why Governments use espionage tools.

I hope you understand the difference between what is legal and ethical for the Government and what is legal and ethical for the corporate world .

The playing grounds are different. One collects Intelligence against the ENEMY and one collects intelligence against a COMPETITOR.

And herein lies the difference.

Udo Hohlfeld, it will be a really great idea if you could convince BND to use and follow SCIP Code of Ethics ONLY.


Interesting discussion. When I added my thoughts I assumed that espionage was corporate espionage and saw the Venn diagram suggesting an overlap to competitive intelligence, and so wrong. If you widen the definition however then the venn diagram makes some sense. 

It is expected for governments to spy on other governments. However if the spies get caught they get punished - so it's illegal. 

There is, however, another form of espionage that is legal in all cases. That's police "espionage" except it's normally called surveillance. The techniques however may be the same as those used in espionage including the use of bugs, and other surveillance tactics.  

Some techniques however are immoral - for example, the honey trap approach to getting a criminal to incriminate themselves. Often courts throw out such cases and say the police tactics went too far.  The importance of catching the criminal must play a part here. Catching a terrorist mastermind - e.g. Carlos the Jackal or Osama bin Leden and his cronies, etc. could be viewed as moral in pretty much all cases as the result saves 100s of lives. However catching a drug pusher would be more questionable.  Nevertheless even with terrorism there are some techniques that are immoral or questionably immoral. Waterboarding, extraordinary rendition followed by torture, etc. are viewed as immoral by many (although not all) and this shows that morality is not always clearcut. 

If you include this, you then have a continuum i.e. 

Illegal espionage  - where one government spies on another government or corporate espionage
Legal espionage that's immoral - e.g some honey traps to catch criminals / some police stings, waterboarding/ torture to get people to talk, etc.
Legal espionage that's moral - e.g. surveillance techniques, phone tapping that's authorised by a court, etc.
Immoral competitive intelligence  - e.g. misrepresentation, "trash archaeology", etc. (Generally this is legal but definitely unethical)
Legal & moral competitive intelligence - which I hope we all do!  


You have hit the nail on the head.

I was very impressed by the Israeli Snatch of Mordechai Vanunu.

Salute to Cheryl Ben Tov, the ultimate Femme Fatale.

Dear Arthur,

You are right. I have not referred to the corporate espionage that is totally and always an illegal activity but to the governments' espionage. After your first post I thought 'what was wrong?!' but now I see the misunderstanding. Thank you for the interesting thoughts you have shared. 

Thank you all who posted here and helped to clarify things :)

‎"Sherlock Holmes " -quote of the day:

"And you don´t trust you own secret service?"

"Naturally not. They all spy on people for money."


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