An Artful Dance:

Elicitation & Corporate Espionage

(Part 1 of 7 of our series “Demystifying Corporate Espionage”)

Elicitation: the use of seemingly normal conversation to uncover useful and/or potentially restricted information.

Corporate espionage thrives on the subtleties of information manipulation.

Today we shine a spotlight on the often-overlooked art of elicitation. Disguised as ordinary small-talk, elicitation is a skillful practice that relies on a strategic blend of different elements including self-deprecation, flattery, and guided statements to extract valuable information in plain sight.

How Elicitation Works

Elicitation is the craft of extracting sensitive or confidential information through conversations that seem inconspicuous. At its core, it appears to be casual dialogue, but beneath the surface lies a meticulously orchestrated dance of words and emotions. Those well-versed in elicitation are adept at steering discussions towards their intended secrets while concealing their true agenda.

Here are some examples of what it looks like in practice…

  1. Building a Bridge with Self-Deprecation: Elicitation often commences with a bridge of trust. To construct this bridge, corporate spies might employ self-deprecating humor or humbly admit their lack of expertise in certain areas. This endears them to their targets, fostering an atmosphere of camaraderie.

    Example: “I’m just not as tech-savvy as you folks. I’ve always struggled with understanding the intricacies of your industry.”
  2. Flattery as a Tool: Flattery is another tool that can elevate a target’s trust. Genuine compliments and praise are used strategically to elevate the target’s sense of importance and competence.

    Example: “Your company’s achievements in recent times have been nothing short of remarkable. I’ve always admired your innovative approach.”
  3. Guided Statements and Errors: Not all information needs to be asked about directly. Two of the most effective tools – guided statements and purposeful errors – are often used together to great success. By the very nature that a statement is not a question, it lowers any inherent suspicion of the topic. And nothing gets someone talking faster than speaking incorrectly to something they are deeply familiar with. When used in combination, the target is highly compelled to either correct them or fill in the gaps with valuable information.

    Example: “I heard you were working on some groundbreaking projects in AI. Was it… Machine Learning, or was it Deep Learning? I’m not entirely sure, but I’d love to hear more about it.”
  4. Attentive Listening: Elicitation hinges on being an attentive listener. Every word, tone, and gesture holds significance. Seasoned elicitors pay close attention to not only what is said but how it is expressed, decoding emotions and nuances.
  5. Mirroring and Validation: Elicitation virtuosos mirror responses and validate the target’s opinions, creating a sense of shared understanding and mutual respect.

    Example: “I completely agree with your perspective on market trends. It’s refreshing to find someone who sees eye to eye with me.”
  6. The Art of Redirecting: At the right moment, the spy adeptly redirects the conversation towards the concealed information. This is achieved by introducing related subjects or casually mentioning the topic of interest, as if it were an afterthought.

    Example: “By the way, how’s the progress on that confidential project going? I recall you mentioning it in passing earlier.”

Elicitation in the Realm of Corporate Espionage

In the world of corporate espionage, elicitation is a formidable weapon. Spies employ these techniques to unearth sensitive business strategies, proprietary technology insights, or financial data, all while maintaining a façade of innocence. Here are some scenarios where elicitation plays a pivotal role:

  • Trade Shows and Conferences: Corporate spies frequently attend industry events, using the pretense of networking to elicit critical information from competitors and insiders.
  • Interviews and Job Fairs: During interviews or job fairs, spies subtly extract confidential data about a company’s operations or upcoming ventures, cleverly framed as inquiries about potential employment.
  • Casual Encounters: Elicitation unfolds in seemingly casual settings such as social gatherings, where spies engage employees or insiders in conversations that gradually veer towards sensitive topics.
  • Airplanes & Taxis: The close proximity experienced in airplanes and other public transport often lends itself to people feeling more open to speak to one another.

    If you’ve ever sat next to a person on a plane who was a stranger, but by the end of the plane ride, you are exchanging numbers and know all about each other’s lives, then you understand the vulnerability.

In conclusion, elicitation is a cornerstone of corporate espionage, celebrated for its elegant simplicity.

By unraveling the art of elicitation, individuals and organizations can better safeguard their confidential data and recognize when they are being targeted.

Join us in our next post about “Physical Access Control”.

Each week we will demystify more of the methods and techniques used in corporate espionage and provide you with skills and strategies to fortify your business against these covert threats.