You are here: American University School of International Service SIS Research Highlights William Akoto, Who spies on whom? Unravelling the puzzle of state-sponsored cyber economic espionage


William Akoto, Who spies on whom? Unravelling the puzzle of state-sponsored cyber economic espionage

A new article by SIS Professor William Akoto examines state-sponsored cyber economic espionage, with findings that challenge traditional beliefs about why nations spy on each other economically. Conventional wisdom suggests that countries with different industrial and product offerings should be the primary participants in economic espionage, as they seek to bridge technological and economic gaps by acquiring secrets from one another. However, empirical evidence paints a different picture, showing that such espionage is more common between countries with similar manufacturing strengths and technological capabilities.

In the paper, Akoto introduces a new theoretical perspective to unpack this phenomenon. He suggests that countries engage in economic espionage not randomly or broadly, but with a strategic focus on peers that share comparable levels of technological and economic development. This strategy is driven by the notion that the information or secrets stolen from countries with similar productive capabilities are more valuable, as they can be more effectively utilized to enhance the thief's own economic and technological standing.

To support this argument, he employs a data-driven approach, analyzing the relationship between the complexity of countries' product outputs and their involvement in cyber economic espionage. Akoto finds that the likelihood of espionage decreases as the disparity in product complexities between two countries increases. This finding suggests that countries are more inclined to spy on nations that are on a similar technological and economic level, as the expected utility of the stolen information is higher.

This article thus offers new insights into the strategic calculations that underpin state-sponsored cyber espionage and challenges scholars and policymakers to rethink the dynamics of international economic competition and security in the digital age.

Read the article here.