By Will Smale
BBC News Online business reporter
The revelation that Marks and Spencer is investigating an apparent attempt to spy on the mobile phone records of its boss Stuart Rose has brought industrial espionage into sharp and somewhat worrying focus.
Speak up mate, I'm trying to record you here.
By the very nature of the activity it is impossible to quantify, but experts are in agreement that the issue is real and growing.
And the galloping pace of technology is making espionage, such as eavesdropping or theft, ever more of a potential problem for companies today.
Mobile phones and the internet simply provide the bad guys with a number of additional ways to get at a company's information, helped on by an ever more sophisticated and easily obtainable array of gadgets and tools with which to do their dirty work.
For example, an electronic bug can be enclosed in an apparently normal mobile phone battery, creating a listening device that is forever powered by the said power source and able to transmit the user's two-way conversation.
Picture the scene: the company director hangs his coat up in the changing room before going off to begin his round of golf. The attacker then simply opens up the executive's mobile phone and switches the batteries.
The director may never find out he was being bugged. After all, how many people know the file number on their mobile phone battery?
Yet an unscrupulous rival can now listen to some of his most intimate business conversations.
The Institute of Directors (IoD) confirms that, from talking to its members, the potential of becoming a victim of industrial espionage now seems to be bigger than ever.
Some 60% of members have suffered from theft - be it electronic or of the more traditional form - while 14% have reported internet crime in one form or another, explains IoD head of business policy Richard Wilson.
"It is certain that the increased use of mobile phones and the internet means the potential to suffer from industrial espionage is bigger than ever.
Was Stuart Rose the victim of industrial espionage?
"Every cloud has a silver lining though, so to speak, and it does provide a lot of opportunities for security companies to offer protection," Mr Wilson told BBC News Online.
Bugging devices are found at 4-5% of UK companies that ask for checks, according to Justin King, managing director of C2i International, one firm which helps businesses prevent and counter industrial espionage.
"In some cases the bugs could have been in place for months or years. People are just utterly horrified when they find out, just devastated," Mr King said.
Mr King says the extent of the problem is evident when you realise that, according to industry estimates, more than £10m of bugging devices have now been sold in the UK. Considering some bugs cost as little as £40 each, that could be an awful lot of bugs.
REAL LIFE ESPIONAGE
In 2001 Procter and Gamble admitted spying on rival Unilever for information on its shampoos
Boeing was punished by the US Air Force in 2003 for resorting to espionage in order to better its defence rival Lockheed Martin
"They are out there and companies cannot afford to ignore the problem," he said.
And Mr King is in no doubt about the motivating factor behind the bugging trend: money.
"Information is vital when the markets are tight and people want to get an advantage. This is especially vital when in cases of mergers or hostile takeovers.
"That one fact or figure could make all the difference."
There are also a number of semi-legal firms providing spying services, Mr King added.
Check under the lamp shade
"These people are very easy to find, sadly it isn't hard," he said.
And in addition from simply protecting internet and phone systems, companies also need to keep an eye on their staff, be it full time workers or contract cleaners.
"I'm told the going rate to get a cleaner to steal something for you in London is £20," said Mr King.
"We have had clients who have had a cleaner steal a vital document, or photograph it with a mobile phone, or even in one instance, simply copy it on one of the firm's photocopiers. You do not want to leave sensitive documents lying around.
"Industrial espionage isn't just in films or TV shows, it is real and out there." said Mr King.