Federal prosecutors are investigating allegations that Uber used an espionage team, made up of former CIA agents, to steal trade secrets from its rivals.
On this episode on Radio Sputnik’s Loud and Clear, Hosts Brian Becker and John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent himself, discuss how industrial or corporate espionage against competitors is actually quite common.
The recent revelation against Uber became public on Tuesday in a court hearing that was originally intended to pave the way for a trial involving Uber and Waymo, the Google spinoff self-driving technology company accusing Uber of stealing its technology.
The new allegations against Uber revolve around a letter written by Richard Jacobs, Uber’s former manager of global intelligence, revealing that he was demoted and fired for attempting to halt the company’s alleged espionage.
Uber allegedly tried to steal trade secrets from rivals overseas, used services like Wickr to erase messages and hired former CIA agents to help with surveillance.
“A lot of companies hire CIA officials, or former CIA officials, to work for them to try to gain a competitive advantage. However, what Uber did was illegal in that it went beyond the confines of the law,” Becker explained.
“This is the dirty little secret of corporate America,” Kiriakou agreed.
“Corporate America is absolutely full of former CIA officers and it’s funny because when you’re hired into the CIA, a lot of people believe that your skills are so specific to government espionage and that you can’t do anything else outside the government and that is completely untrue, and I’ll give an example of my own experience,” Kiriakou said.
“I left the CIA after nearly 15 years and I went into the private sector. I went to work for one of the big four consulting firms — it’s a combination consulting and accounting firm — a household name. I was one of the founders of a group that was mostly made up of former CIA officers. We also had a former IRS agent and a former Secret Service agent and our job was, very simply put, to spy on competitors.”
Kiriakou’s role was to cultivate human sources inside those competitors to report back to his company so that he could steal their pricing models. His job also included determining if there were any internal issues in the competitor’s firm that his consulting firm could capitalize on.
Kiriakou also described how he used information from a human source at a rival competitive company to give his firm a competitive edge.
“The senior partner sat next to another senior partner and their offices were adjoined,” Kiriakou said, referring to the partners at the rival company.
“And these guys loved baseball and they talked about baseball all the time. They also sat next to a managing partner who hated baseball and who, frankly was tired of his two colleagues just talking about the Dodgers every waking moment. So, one day the managing partner went out and said no more talk about baseball. Words were exchanged and he used an ethnic epithet with one of these partners. So the human source I had at the company called me and explained all that had happened that day in the office.”
“And so I wrote a long memo to the head of relevant practice in my firm and I said, look, we have an opportunity here to recruit a guy who is making millions of dollars in revenue for one of our primary competitors. By the end of the day, my managing partner had called this guy, invited him to lunch and recruited him to jump to our company,” Kiriakou explained.
But these skills can’t just be picked up from American spy services — you can take courses on them in college, too.
Kiriakou cited the examples of Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania and Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, “which offer a master’s degree in competitive intelligence with the idea being you earn this degree and then you go directly into the corporate world and start spying on your company’s competitors,” Kiriakou added.