January 5, 2012
Last year, French carmaker Renault accepted the resignation of its No. 2 executive in the wake of an "embarrassing fiasco" in which the company fired three employees it had mistakenly suspected of corporate espionage. The Renault case is just the latest in a long string of headline-making tales tied to corporate spying suspicions. Here, a rundown of the Renault debacle, and three other recent spy stories:
1. Renault and the bogus spy charges
After being tipped off by an anonymous letter, the carmaker fired three employees in January for allegedly selling secrets about the company's electric-car program. The affair caused tension with Beijing after French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered an investigation into whether China was involved in the espionage. But the axed executives strongly proclaimed their innocence throughout the ordeal, and the carmaker eventually acknowledged it had been tricked. Now, Chief Operating Officer Patrick Plata has resigned, and six other executives have been fired, for what the company calls a "chain of failures" in its investigation and the unfounded accusations against the trio.
2. Google and the suspected Chinese hackers
The search giant says that a "highly sophisticated and targeted" cyber attack in late 2009 was traced back to China. The attack, which involved the "theft of intellectual property" and the email accounts of human-rights activists, was part of a broader hacking effort called "Operation Aurora," which targeted more than 20 other companies. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed that U.S. officials also believe the hacking was orchestrated by high-level Chinese officials. Google temporarily shut down its mainland China search site in the wake of the scandal.
3. Starwood, Hilton, and the hotel snoops
Three years ago, hotel giant Starwood filed suit against its rival Hilton, alleging that Hilton used spies to gather information and quickly launch a chain of luxury "lifestyle" hotels similar to the W chain run by Starwood. The suit alleged that two Starwood employees stole more than 100,000 documents full of sensitive trade secrets, and then joined Hilton - and that dozens of Hilton executives read the files. Late last year, the hotel chains reached a settlement that prohibited Hilton from introducing any lifestyle hotels for two years. Hilton also agreed to pay Starwood $75 million in cash and another $75 million in hotel-management contracts.
4. Hewlett-Packard and the phone records scandal
HP hired investigators in 2006 to track down the source within the company of information leaked to the press. The snoops sniffed around board members, and journalists at publications including BusinessWeek, CNET, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Private detectives even impersonated the subjects of their investigation to get their personal phone records. The case prompted congressional hearings, and the company has paid $14.5 million to settle a suit brought by California's attorney general. Chairwoman Patricia Dunn resigned in September 2006, and a California judge eventually dismissed felony charges against her.