Federal Economic Espionage

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Economic espionage is a complex legal definition that involves the theft of trade secrets. In effect, economic espionage is the use of a stolen trade secret to benefit foreign powers or in commercial or economic trade. Ideas, formulas or products can all be trade secrets. Those who commit economic espionage do so in order to gain and benefit from proprietary information developed by businesses. It is estimated that economic espionage has caused business losses in the trillions of dollars over the last decade alone.

Economic espionage is prohibited by the Economic Espionage Act of 1996 (18 U.S.C. § 1831-1839). Section 1831 of the Act criminalizes the theft and use of stolen trade secrets to benefit foreign powers, while Section 1832 makes illegal the theft of such trade secrets for commercial or economic gain. This includes the duplication or copying of a trade secret with the intention to economically benefit from it and/or the conspiracy to do so.

The penalties for economic 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.

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