Tim laughed when he walked into my cubicle to talk. He managed a specialty manufacturing company that boasted around 100 years of experience. A firm had just contacted him wanting his help. Tim explained that his background check showed that it did a lot of business in China. He suspected the firm was a front for technical espionage. So, he unequivocally told them “no” but in a more emphatic and colorful way. This wasn’t the first time he had fended off queries from suspect organizations. He had a lot of proprietary knowledge to protect, Tim emphasized, and he wasn’t about to let a foreign firm wheedle insights from him.
It’s not just the Chinese that you must worry about. Russia, North Korea, India, Western Europe and others practice industrial espionage. (Don't take this as a blanket accusation of people in those countries.) Their spies go for soft targets: companies in a downturn, new managers, former employees, engineering firms and even technical recruiters. They often troll LinkedIn trying to access profiles of engineers with relevant expertise they want to steal.
Foiling espionage is a good reason to do background checks on vendors, constructors and operating firms. However, such checks can provide other valuable insights such as: 1) determining if a contractor or firm has the particular experience needed — or will just subcontract out the work, with you paying for the subcontractor to learn the contractor’s business ways; 2) evaluating whether the relationship will be long- or short-term based on its previous relationships; 3) finding whether the organization has downsized in the past few years and kept its core talent; and, 4) lastly, assessing why it wants or needs the job.
That last point is important. In remote areas, some companies gamble that it’s cheaper to hire locals than to import staff with relevant experience. I know of one chemical plant put up by a constructor that only had built “big box” stores. Shaking out all the problems took two years. It seems the constructor gained the experience it wanted but at the expense of the company that hired it.
You can turn to several online tools to do a background check. Use Google, of course. However, be wary — remember that companies can take steps to sanitize their reputations. Don’t limit yourself to Google. Try various search engines, including ones from other countries. Search engines based in some of these countries protect their own firms but often will gladly talk ill of American companies.
Also, take advantage of LinkedIn. It’s not that valuable for investigating individuals. However, checking with LinkedIn “friends” may lead to insights. Perhaps, someone will know something about an operating company, vendor, constructor or even an individual. I’ve used LinkedIn to investigate ties to foreign governments. Sometimes, you have to go to the second tier (i.e., determining who owns the particular company) or even the third tier (i.e., if another firm controls the company that owns the firm) before you find out that a person really is a conduit to a country with whom you shouldn’t do business.
Be wary of close ties to academia because universities have been soft targets for technical espionage for decades: “Ostensibly legitimate Chinese academics, scientists, and business people, some of them with contacts and even teaching posts at major research universities, were well positioned to send technology designs and other useful intelligence back home,” warned Shane Harris in “The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State” (Penguin Books, 2011).
Use your imagination. Generally, look for connections after college but also consider the influence of nationalism, particularly on first- and second-generation immigrants. Refer to List of Chinese spy cases in the United States and The New Industrial Espionage.
Also, check news outlets, particularly local media where a company is headquartered. You may find some interesting information about the company, its executives, operations and plans. Foreign-based media sometimes offer content in English as well as the native language. So, don’t automatically dismiss this avenue if you can’t read material in the particular language.
DIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. He recently won recognition for his Field Notes column from the ASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can e-mail him at email@example.com