The term is distinct from legal and ethical activities such as examining corporate publications, websites, patent filings, and the like to determine the activities of a corporation (this is normally referred to as competitive intelligence). Theoretically the difference between espionage and legal information gathering is clear. In practice, it is quite difficult to sometimes tell the difference between legal and illegal methods. Especially if one starts to consider the ethical side of information gathering, the border becomes even more blurred and elusive of definition.
Industrial espionage describes activities such as theft of trade secrets, bribery, blackmail, and technological surveillance. As well as spying on commercial organizations, governments can also be targets of commercial espionage—for example, to determine the terms of a tender for a government contract so that another tenderer can underbid.
Espionage takes place in many forms. In short, the purpose of espionage is to gather knowledge about (an) organization(s). A spy may be hired, or may work for himself.
Although a lot of information gathering is accomplished by combing through public records (public databases and patent filings), at times corporations feel the best way to get information is to take it. Corporate espionage is a threat to any business whose livelihood depends on information. The information competitors seek may be client lists, supplier agreements, personnel records, research documents, or prototype plans for a new product or service. The compilation of these crucial elements is called CIS or CRS, a Competitive Intelligence Solution or Competitive Response Solution.
That espionage and sabotage (corporate or otherwise) have become more clearly associated with each other is also demonstrated by a number of profiling studies, some government, some corporate (such as this paper from the Software Engineering Institute ). That the US Government currently has a polygraph examination for the "Test of Espionage and Sabotage" (TES) is also demonstrative of the increasingly popular (though not necessarily the group consensus) notion, by those studying espionage and sabotage countermeasures, of the interrelationship of the two. In practice, and particularly in regards to 'trusted insiders', they are more often than not considered functionally identical when it comes to the majority of the countermeasures.