This is a book review of The Grey Line: Modern Corporate Espionage & Counter Intelligence by Andrew Brown.
Amazon link here.
In sum, it has a strong opening, a fantastic closing, and a laborious middle.
The first fourteen pages of The Grey Line provided a vivid, well-written, and densely packed portrait of modern corporate espionage. It opens with a story of a sophisticated, well-funded attack on a software company in Silicon Valley. The scam involved creating a false-front business, reminiscent of techniques portrayed in movies such as Ocean’s Eleven (2001), Empire (2002), or even The Game (1997). I was enthralled from the beginning.
Pages three through fourteen contain the essence of the book. It provides a persuasive argument that corporate espionage is an inevitable and unavoidable component of modern multinational business. “Make no mistake, corporate intelligence is a real and growing threat to companies across the entire business spectrum.” (p5) I couldn’t wait to dive in to the remainder of the book.
Continuing on, from pages fifteen through the two-hundreds, the author expands upon and repeats the lessons of the first fourteen pages. He frequently repeats himself, provides unsubstantiated opinions, and offers few insights that have not already been covered in modern spy fiction. Despite the early disclaimer that “Hollywood has not prepared you for the realities of the modern corporate espionage,” (p6) the book presents a steady stream of familiar plot points. I amused myself during those laborious middle sections by attributing a movie scene to each of the lessons.
For example, the section “Cold Approach versus the Gradual Approach“ (p120-122) was demonstrated beautifully in the Netflix series Ozark (2017). In the show, an FBI agent acquires inside information on a potential informant, takes the time to befriend him, then betrays him. The agent then uses his leverage to manipulate the informant to the agent’s will. In the end, of course, everything falls apart and the agent’s plan completely fails.
In the section, “Media” (page 129), the author describes how people are flattered by attention and will do almost anything to get in the spotlight. The Rolling Stone reporter portrayed in the movie Perfect (1985) had a more nuanced approach: “Treat celebrities like regular people, and treat regular people like celebrities.” In Roddy Doyle’s The Dead Republic (2010), the lead character, an aging career criminal, admits to the police that he is beginning to enjoy being an informer, on account of the positive attention lavished upon on him by the police. The use of flattery is so pervasive in literature that I have difficulty finding a story that doesn’t include it in some form.
A noticeable number of spy tradecraft examples were also used in the movie Spy Game (2001). I found it humorous (and enigmatic) that the author actually referenced that movie on page 158. Given the amount of repetition from Hollywood, for a time, I was wondering if I was being scammed by the author. On the other hand, if the author is genuine, then the writers of Hollywood have magnificent insight into the inner workings of spy tradecraft and corporate espionage.
Other movies and shows that contain scenes that mirror examples used in The Grey Line include (but are not limited to):
- Three Days of the Condor (1975)
- Syrianna (2005)
- Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
- Ronin (1998)
- House of Cards (2013)
- Breaking Bad (2008)
- Falcon and the Snowman (1985)
- Catch Me If You Can (2002)
- Ransom (1996)
- The Tailor of Panama (2001)
Outside of movie references, Sections II through V contained an occasional nugget of novel information. For example, pages 68 to 71 describe the deterioration of the modern employee-employer relationship. Lower-level employees living check-to-check can be easily convinced to steal immensely valuable corporate information for paltry sums. However, because this claim so blatantly appeals to the reader’s emotions (even though I totally subscribe to it!), I had to discount its real value as information. Until, of course, I came across a vivid enactment of this concept in Part VI.
After laboring through pages 15 to 303, the book redeems itself in Part VI, “Corporate Espionage in Practice.” (p304-355) Alexander’s Story is riveting, relevant, densely packed, and shockingly believable. Each vignette demonstrates, with sobering clarity, the real-life damage that corporate espionage can inflict upon corporations and high-value individuals alike. The stories depict a perfect storm of factors: a ready supply of trained operatives available for hire, wealthy clients highly motivated to steal information, and an abundance of security vulnerabilities in today’s internet-connected society. I enjoyed Alexander’s Story because I believe that each scenario has actually happened, and I believe that people like Alexander and his clients really exist. I highly recommend Part VI to anyone interested in corporate espionage.
In closing, while The Grey Line suffers from inconsistent writing styles and much of its espionage is written at a level familiar to any fan of spy fiction, it does contain some truly eye-opening content. “The simple truth is, corporate espionage works.” (p7) Based on the author’s compelling argument, I believe it.