A major bust by the Delhi Police on Thursday has suddenly brought all petroleum companies under the scanner of authorities for a crime that’s rarely talked about in India: corporate espionage. Delhi Police’s Crime Branch arrested five persons, reportedly including two government officials and a journalist, for allegedly leaking classified documents from the petroleum ministry.

The cops carried out the raids in Delhi’s Shastri Bhavan, which houses the petroleum ministry, and arrested two people there. According to Zee, the two arrested were a peon and a clerk who allegedly had access to offices of senior ministry officials. Now the scanner will turn to the companies to whom these classified documents have been leaked to.

The Delhi Police says it will be looking at all the petroleum companies. All of them. And that’s not surprising, if you’ve been paying attention. According to analysts, corporate espionage is widespread, across most major industries in India and it’s also rarely detected.

Espionage India's 'Booming Sector'

Take for example this Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India survey from 2012. According to Assocham’s report, more than 35% of companies across sectors are involved in some form of espionage to gain an advantage over their competitors.

A PriceWaterhouseCooper report from 2013 only adds to this perception, calling industrial espionage “India’s new booming sector.” According to the PWC report, almost 80% of Chief Executive Officers use detectives and surveillance agencies to spy on ex and current employees in addition to attempting to get competitive advantages.

And the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry called business espionage the 9th biggest threat to Indian companies in its annual India Risk Survey in 2014. Worryingly, the report also said that, despite the spread of Closed Circuit TV cameras and tracking software, only 15-20% of corporate espionage cases actually end up being detected.

“Corporate espionage within the workplace and corporate environment can have a devastating impact on the business entity in which it is occurring,” the PWC report said. “It’s difficult to quantify the potential losses due to corporate espionage since it’s not easy to measure what effect a stolen ad campaign might have had, or how a stolen design might have dominated the market. But it’s hitting the Indian market in a big way.”

While these reports mostly cover espionage directed at competitors, they also indicate a willingness of companies to use underhand means to get advantages. This is often also directed at the government, with firms seeking to influence ministries or extract information before other companies that would give them an undue advantage in the market, particularly because of how leaky the Indian bureaucracy has often been.

Greasy Palms

The petroleum industry in particular is vulnerable to this problem, because of the information that the government gathers about everything from oil blocks to company bids. Under the United Progressive Alliance government, oil minister Veerappa Moily had pushed forward the idea that the ministry needs to have CCTV cameras in crucial areas within its premises, particularly on the exploration desk.

This suggestion came after a lower level official in the ministry allegedly photocopied a crucial document to pass on to a private company, but got caught in the process. The ministry even floated a tender for six cameras in July last year, but it failed to move forward. The Economic Times also reported that the ministry had compiled a list of staff who were suspected to be selling information to corporate houses.

Decision-making in the oil ministry has always been a controversial issue, with corporate houses like Reliance having been accused of forcing the government to change ministers, let alone relatively smaller matters like leaked information. With the scanner now turning to the companies that might have been responsible for this alleged espionage, the story is just beginning.