Industrial espionage is as ancient as industry itself—and a frequent accomplice to the rise of empires. From classical Greek cities to modern U.S. corporations, the theft of trade secrets has marked a transfer of power almost as routinely as bloodshed. The methods have switched from old-fashioned spying to online hacks, but the motivation remains the same: winning.
In the 18th century, a rising United States was the main culprit. Alexander Hamilton stressed the need to steal European technical knowledge, while Benjamin Franklin openly encouraged British artisans to immigrate to America—and, implicitly, to bring British machinery with them. “[M]ost of the political and intellectual elite of the revolutionary and early national generation were directly or indirectly involved in technology piracy,” writes the Fordham University historian Doron Ben-Atar in his book Trade Secrets. Today, however, the United States is the one defending its position against other perpetrators—most notably China.
Here’s a look at some key cases of industrial espionage throughout history.
In the ancient Mediterranean city of Sybaris, chefs presiding over luxurious feasts complain of rivals stealing their recipes. City leaders grant cooks exclusive ownership of their recipes for one year, creating the oldest known recognition of intellectual property rights.
According to the Byzantine historian Procopius, Emperor Justinian sends Nestorian Christian monks to China to bring back the secret of silk. They return to Byzantium with silkworm eggs concealed in their staffs, which later hatch, breaking the Chinese monopoly.
The French Jesuit priest François Xavier d’Entrecolles travels to China’s imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, to steal the secret of hard-paste porcelain. He sends back lengthy letters detailing his findings, influencing the work of some of Europe’s most renowned potters.
The English immigrant Samuel Slater establishes America’s first water-powered textile mill by replicating techniques from his home country. Such copying was illegal under British law, which included the death penalty for passing on trade secrets. The English dub him “Slater the Traitor.”
The New Englander Francis Cabot Lowell sets sail for Britain, where he tours textile factories in Glasgow and Manchester, examining the revolutionary power loom. Taking machine plans out of the country is illegal, but Lowell uses his powerful memory to recreate the designs he saw on returning home.
The Scottish botanist Robert Fortune journeys to the tea-processing mountain towns of China’s Fujian province, his hair styled to pass as a local. His observations allow the British East India Company to found vast tea plantations throughout South Asia.
Representatives of the Soviet Amtorg Trading Corp. secure visits to Ford Motor Co. plants in the United States as part of a trade deal. While there, they swipe blueprints and parts for the revolutionary Fordson tractor.
The West German agent Karl Heinrich Stohlze travels to Boston to seduce a mid-level manager at a biotechnology firm. She pilfers proprietary documents about biotech research for him to photocopy and reportedly pass on to the German electronics company Siemens, before being caught and attempting suicide. Stohlze escapes back to Germany.
The FBI confirms that French intelligence targeted U.S. electronics companies including IBM and Texas Instruments between 1987 and 1989 in an attempt to bolster the failing Compagnie des Machines Bull, a state-owned French computer firm. The efforts mixed electronic surveillance with attempted recruitment of disgruntled personnel.
As U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration considers sanctions on Japanese luxury car imports, National Security Agency and CIA officers eavesdrop on conversations involving Toyota and Nissan executives using cutting-edge surveillance technology. They pass on the intelligence to U.S. trade negotiators.
A cybersecurity analyst at the Canadian telecommunications company Nortel discovers that hackers in Shanghai, whom he suspects of working for the Chinese firm Huawei, have penetrated Nortel’s computer network. The company goes bankrupt in 2009.
After the United States levels numerous accusations against China for stealing secrets from U.S. companies including Boeing and Coca-Cola, the two countries agree on a cease-fire on cyberattacks directed at commercial businesses. It does not hold.
Concerns about the role of firms such as Huawei in building 5G networks leads to a U.S. boycott but also pushback from the European Union. Control of the new telecom infrastructure would give China surveillance capabilities and the potential to directly manipulate internet-connected devices.