Foreign Spies Look to Acquire U.S. Economic and Trade Data: Report Says 23 Countries Use Both Legal, Illegal Methods

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Foreign spies and corporate agents from 23 nations are trying to acquire U.S. trade and economic secrets, including both traditional U.S. foes and allies, according to a U.S. government counterintelligence report.

The annual report to Congress on foreign economic spying also states that foreign economic spies are seeking an array of high-technology data and products, ranging from weapons systems to manufacturing processes.

"Analysis of updated information indicates that of those identified countries, 12 are assessed to be most actively targeting U.S. proprietary economic information and critical technologies," the report states.

The report, which was released by the White House National Security Council this week, does not identify the nations.

According to the National Counterintelligence Center, which produced the report, economic spying methods are changing from "a reliance on clandestine and illegal activity to overt and legal collection."

"This transition is not limited to commercially sponsored activity but also includes foreign intelligence service activity," the report states.

Among the U.S. companies that have been targeted by foreign economic espionage in recent years are IBM Corp., Corning Inc., Honeywell Corp., Eastman Kodak, 3M Corp., AT&T and General Electric, the report states.

In January, General Motors Corp. won a $100 million settlement against a foreign automaker related to a GM executive who took plans for advanced assembly line and other proprietary information, an apparent reference to GM's dispute with Volkswagen.

"The continued loss of trade secrets in key, high-technology industries could, over time, threaten the national security interests of the United States, and result in the loss of jobs and economic opportunity," the report states.

The report says losses caused by foreign economic spying are difficult to measure but notes that industry estimates range in "the billions of dollars each year."

According to the report, the FBI views economic spying involving foreign intelligence services that seek U.S. technologies as "a significant threat to U.S. national security."

"Even certain U.S. allies are actively attempting to obtain U.S. information through unauthorized means," the report states.

Among the targeted information and technology identified in the report are aeronautics systems, armaments and energetic materials, chemical and biological systems, directed and kinetic energy systems, electronics, guidance systems, information systems, information warfare, manufacturing and fabrication, marine systems, nuclear systems, sensors and lasers, space systems and weapons effects and countermeasures. …