I'm an engineer in a company building plants. To help improve our products and to improve our market standing our team is supposed to research all of our competitors, gathering data about their products, activities, markets, capabilities, revenue etc. I have been assigned one company to research.

Key questions we are trying to answer with this project

  • Which key components are bought, which are produced in house (This is often not found on the website)?
  • What services are really offered in addition to the plants being built (some companies in our market claim to offer a full service in their advertising, but don't give out service contracts)?

Obvious sources of information

  • Their website and gather all the info on the site. This will include sales brochures, pricing information, options, press releases, and warranty descriptions.
  • Also, our accounting department will gather credit rating information etc.

Regarding ethics:

Stealing protected technology is not our goal. We don't want to pose as potential customers to get proprietary information. Also, the most illegal thing I'm prepared to do for my company is maybe(!) collect a speeding ticket.

My Question:

What are non-obvious sources of information that are publicly avalaible? Where do you see critical issues about the ethics and legality of different kinds of research?

  • 3
    this has nothing to do with workplace issues, it is more about industrial espionage! way off topic!
    – user718
    Aug 3 '12 at 8:05
  • Espionage? That would involve illegal stuff, of course I'm not asking about that. Off-topic can be discussed: I see it as one of the many things required from me in my professional life that have nothing to do with my training.
    – mart
    Aug 3 '12 at 11:43
  • care to explain off topic?
    – mart
    Aug 3 '12 at 12:00
  • 2
    @JarrodRoberson, I agree the question might not be on-topic as is, but it is NOT about espionage. Perhaps the question can be re-formed into one about the ethical problems/limitations of collecting information from a competitor.
    – Angelo
    Aug 3 '12 at 12:40
  • 1
    for the reference, question discussion at Meta: Why is this offtopic and is there a way to improve and reopen?
    – gnat
    Aug 3 '12 at 13:20

There should be nothing unethical about this unless you are purposely looking for information that is not already public and freely available.

Finance - Publicly traded companies are required to publicly disclose their earnings reports. This is always one of the most basic ways to find out about a companies revenue. Privately held companies or corporations are not held to such expectations so generally there is no ethical way to obtain this information.

Activities, Markets - Their company website should have a lot of good information on the different products and industries that they have involved in. Most companies tend to be braggarts though even listing unsuccessful products that may not have ever actually had a single customer. Simply because they claim they have broken into a new industry does not necessarily mean that this is entirely true or realistic. Further you can find interesting information on executives, board of directors, when and where they will be attending various conferences, and mailing addresses.

As long as you are not trying to hack into private areas of a website or web application then you are not violating any ethics.

Conferences and Sales Presentations, Cold Calls This one may be ethically dubious, but sometimes you can sponsor various student projects at your local university. They will not be paid or considered employees of your company, but most universities like company sponsored projects as it gets them involved and helps students find internships later. You can sponsor a market research project which will sometimes involve gathering a lot of data from competitors that they would normally be gaurded against sharing with you directly. If they get cold called, or if a student attends a conference or sales presentation with the understanding that they are a student observing, then some will be more willing to share information with them that you may not get otherwise. On the plus side, you get to connect with local students in marketing and business research and have a growing pool of potential interns to bring on for the summertime or potential grads looking for an entry level job when they leave school.


If you live in North America or Europe, there is a high chance that investigating their industrial processes or trade secrets could violate their intellectual property or patent rights.

It is fine to gather whatever information they make public by publishing online or in print, but stealing their industrial processes could be illegal and is immoral.

There are also websites that will list a company's estimated revenue, just do a google search of "company name estimated revenue" and you will probably find something that seems reasonable for a company in that field, the number of employees and the most important staff.

If your company is looking to buy the other company, then that company is required to disclose the information to you regarding their finances and business dealings.

If you are investigating for prior art research, the information has to be made public, you can't steal from their office and claim it was prior art to an existing patent.

You should gather all of the public information that is available and then submit it to your boss, but politely explain that you are uncomfortable trying to sneak around their company or try to discover their engineering methodologies because it puts yourself and danger, makes you feel uncomfortable and will laden your company with potential liability for patent infringements and other lawsuits.

Also, if you are caught it could ruin your reputation.


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