Industrial Espionage Is Nothing New: Explore What It Is and Its History

Industrial espionage has been conducted by companies and nation-states for centuries, but what is it and is it a felony?
Christopher McFadden

From the British stealing tea from the Chinese during the 1800s to the French stealing tech from the British during the 1700s, industrial espionage is common practice today. But is it a felony? Could it be considered treason?

Here we explore what exactly is meant by the term, and attempt to answer some of the most commonly asked questions on the matter. 


What is an example of industrial espionage?

Industrial espionage (aka economic espionage, corporate spying or corporate espionage) is defined as:

"an occasion when one company steals secrets from another company with which it is competing," according to Cambridge Dictionary.

This form of espionage tends to be for commercial benefit rather than an issue of national security, as more traditional espionage tends to be considered as.

"While economic espionage is conducted or orchestrated by governments and is international in scope, industrial or corporate espionage is more often national and occurs between companies or corporations," according to Wikipedia. 

Industrial espionage is nothing new and has a fairly long recorded history. In fact, as long as there has been commerce, there has been some form of espionage.

One of the most famous, and earliest, examples were carried out by a French priest in China. 

Father d'Entrecolles famously revealed the manufacturing methods of Chinese porcelain in 1712 AD. This led to an explosion in European China production thereafter. 

Another prime example of concerted industrial espionage occurred between France and the United Kingdom during the Industrial Revolution. At the beginning of the revolution, France partook in wide-scale, state-sponsored industrial espionage to steal and then copy British technology. 

This got so bad, that the UK had to implement legislation to try to contain the problem. But the UK didn't shy away from industrial espionage when it suited them.

Most famously, during the 1800s, Britain set its sights on getting its hands on the secrets of Chinese tea.

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"So the London-based East India Co. hired Scottish botanist and adventurer Robert Fortune to smuggle the tea’s plants, seeds, and secrets out of China and into British-ruled India. Disguised as a Chinese merchant, he succeeded, and within his lifetime the production of tea in India surpassed China's," notes Bloomberg

industrial espionage china
An example of early European China. Source: David Jackson/Wikimedia Commons

Is Espionage a felony?

First off it might be worthwhile to define what is meant by a felony.

According to most sources, a felony is defined as: 

"[A] crime that is considered to be more serious in nature. In criminal law, a felony is a category of crimes that are often classified as the most serious type of offenses. Felonies can be either violent or nonviolent," states.

These tend to include very serious offenses the likes of:

Industrial espionage is widely considered a serious crime and can attract hefty sentences and fines if proven guilty. Misdemeanors, on the other hand, tend to only attract sentences of about a year or so, but this does vary. 

But, of course, to be convicted guilt would need to be proven beyond all reasonable doubt

What is the punishment for espionage?

Industrial espionage, also called economic espionage, can carry some very serious punishments. According to sites like, industrial espionage can be very costly if convicted. 

"The penalties for economic [industrial] espionage can be stiff – those using stolen trade secrets to benefit a foreign government face a fine of up to $500,000 and/or up to 15 years in federal prison, while those who steal trade secrets for their own gain may be fined or put in prison for up to ten years. Companies that engage in economic espionage also face harsh consequences – they can be fined up to $10 million for stealing trade secrets for another government and up to $5 million for using stolen secrets for their own gain.

In addition to prosecution in the United States, the Economic Espionage Act also applies to perpetrators who victimize U.S. citizens, affect the United States in a substantial form, or are a U.S. citizen themselves. The U.S. Department of Justice prosecutes economic espionage with assistance from the CIA and other international bodies."

What is the difference between treason and espionage?

Treason and espionage are actually quite closely related. But, as you will soon find out, they have discrete, yet important differences.

Espionage is generally defined as:

"The practice of spying or using spies to obtain information about the plans and activities especially of a foreign government or a competing company," notes the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Conversely, treason tends to be defined as:

"The offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign's family," again according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary

While both, in some form, involve secretly acquiring information against the owner's will, the intended use of the information differs greatly. 

"Espionage is an act where a person or an individual obtains information that is considered to be confidential or secret. When talking about treason, it is a serious betrayal of one’s own nation or sovereign state," notes

Industrial Espionage Is Nothing New: Explore What It Is and Its History
Source: Pixabay

In fact, in some cases (as we have already seen) some forms of industrial espionage are beneficial to the culprit's nation. Treason, on the other hand, is by definition an action that betrays a person's own nation. 

So, in effect, if the act of stealing information benefits your nation it's not treason but it is still espionage. If the act of stealing information harms your home nation it is both espionage and treason. 

"As espionage is sometimes not treason, treason can also be possible without espionage. If an individual provides some information to another country without spying on his own government, then it is not treason without espionage. This kind of treason, without espionage, mainly involves supplying rewards and monetary benefits to the other nation. It may also involve the supply of arms and ammunition to another country without your government having any knowledge of it," notes

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