November 17, 2006 10:32 AM PST

Bosses get into 007 gadgets

It's not just James Bond who gets to play with all the cool gadgets. More and more business executives are investing in secret agent-style hardware to make sure their top-secret company plans stay under wraps.

Bug-detectors disguised as fountain pens, keyboards that can secretly record everything typed on them, and clock radios with hidden cameras-- devices once only of interest to spies--are now being bought by company chiefs who fear they are being spied on.

"The majority of the customers are buying countersurveillance equipment," said Julia Adams, director of surveillance gadget store Spymaster. "The majority are concerned with what is being leaked. They want to make sure they aren't being bugged and that the competition isn't listening."

Some executives carry pocket-size bug detectors when they are in meetings, on their own premises or elsewhere, that vibrate if they pick up on eavesdropping equipment.

Gadgets appearing in 'Casino Royale'

Adams said that people usually pay the Spymaster store a visit because they have a feeling that something is not quite right and, as she points out, "more often than not that feeling is correct." Once they have equipped themselves with countersurveillance gadgets, executives often come back and stock up on surveillance devices, so that they can then find out which staff member in their office has been leaking information.

Business chiefs may well be right to watch their backs. According to a survey of 2,000 office workers commissioned by Samsung Electronics, 57 percent of respondents said they have found and read confidential information on a printer, and 21 percent admit to having read confidential information on a colleague's monitor.

And it's not just staff leaking company secrets to rivals that bosses have to watch out for. With the Cold War long over, corporate espionage has been heating up.

According to MI5, as the U.K.'s national security service is commonly known, foreign intelligence services are now targeting commercial enterprises "far more than in the past," in an attempt to get their hands on communications technologies, IT, lasers, optics and electronics, to name just a few targets.

At least 20 foreign intelligence services are operating to some degree against U.K. interests, MI5 warns, trying to get secrets from people by exploiting technology such as communications and computer systems. This means as well as buying countersurveillance gadgets to protect themselves, companies need to make sure their computer systems aren't coming under attack.

MI5 has a list with IT security advice on its Web site. It warns that electronic attacks may come from a range of sources: criminals, foreign intelligence services, lone hackers or terrorists. Companies should conduct a risk assessment to establish whether they are at particular risk of an electronic attack, it warns. Indeed, its sister agency, MI6, recently advertised for techies to help keep its own networks secure.

Other recommendations include:

• Buy IT gear from reputable manufacturers and suppliers.
• Ensure that software is as up-to-date as possible. Consider checking for patches and updates at least weekly.
• Ensure that Internet-connected computers are equipped with antivirus software.
• Always ensure that your information is regularly backed-up.
• Try to ensure that those who maintain, operate and guard your systems are reliable and honest.
• Seek regular security advice from system and service providers and make sure you act upon it. Pre-empt attacks instead of waiting for them.
• If there are particular categories of material you wish to protect, you could consider encryption.
• Take basic security precautions in order to prevent software or other information from falling into the wrong hands. Implement a program of security awareness among your staff. Train them not to leave sensitive material lying around and to operate a clear-desk policy.
• Invest in security cabinets and fit locking doors.
• Ensure the proper destruction of confidential material.

Steve Ranger reported for Silicon.com from London.

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