After you carefully mine and organize relevant public information, making a systematic collection of additional, non-public information can provide you with a competitive advantage through superior knowledge.
Non-public information is gathered primarily by directly or indirectly questioning people. But successful intelligence operations generally rely more on indirect methods such as elicitation. This activity is legally and ethically sensitive, and it may not be something all employees will be eager or well-prepared to do. So it may be best to use a professional CI firm to handle it.
In the following paragraphs, I will discuss the concept of elicitation and explain why it works. The next post will cover the main elicitation techniques used to gather primary intelligence and how to use them. Not all the techniques discussed here are legal and ethical; therefore, it is important to consult your legal team before implementing any of these techniques. We have to cover all the techniques, including the illegal ones, because it’s important to be able to protect your firm from them. We will refer back to them when we discuss counterintelligence.
What is elicitation?
According the FBI website, elicitation is
a technique used to discreetly gather information. It is a conversation with a specific purpose: collect information that is not readily available and do so without raising suspicion that specific facts are being sought. It is usually non-threatening, easy to disguise, deniable, and effective ….
Conducted by a skilled collector, elicitation will appear to be normal social or professional conversation. A person may never realize she was the target of elicitation or that she provided meaningful information. …
Elicitation can occur anywhere—at social gatherings, at conferences, over the phone, on the street, on the Internet, or in someone’s home.
In other words, elicitation is the art of getting someone to give you information but think that it was his or her idea to give it to you. Elicitation is a conversational technique that is not based on questions, and it differs from “interviewing” because the source does not know you were seeking the information he or she gave up.
Why does elicitation work?
Humans are imperfect creatures with many social-psychological needs. Elicitation techniques leverage natural human behaviors and habits. An elicitor may rely on traits like these:
- Politeness and helpfulness
- A desire to reciprocate
- A desire to seem well-informed
- A need for appreciation and respect
- A tendency to show off
- A habit of correcting people’s mistaken ideas (especially common in teaching MDs, researchers, etc.)
- A lack of awareness of how valuable information can be
- A tendency to underestimate others’ ability to understand
- A desire to believe other people are honest
- A tendency to respond to people we like
- A habit of honesty
- A need for others to share our opinions
- A desire to prove someone else wrong (common in sales reps, advocates, and scientists)
- A tendency to dislike silence
- A tendency to like to hear ourselves talk
- A tendency to discuss things that are not our direct responsibility
- A tendency to appreciate a sympathetic ear when we are dissatisfied
- A desire to gossip and to share secrets, especially with peers
- A tendency to be disloyal
- A tendency to be less discreet when discussing emotional issues
These tendencies can cause employees to disclose valuable information without being aware of doing so. The elicitation techniques based on them fit naturally into ordinary business conversations. For instance, a stranger might meet you at a conference and start asking about your work. She might not ask direct questions about your company, but she might talk about someone else’s product, causing you to talk about your own product as a comparison. This might be an innocent conversation. But this stranger might also already know more than she lets on. She could be using your desire to be friendly, your desire for appreciation, and your lack of suspicion to get you to disclose specific information about your product. Your naïve answers could tell her exactly what she and her company want to know.
So how do skilled competitive-intelligence professionals exploit these natural human tendencies? In part 2 of this post, I will discuss several specific elicitation techniques that you and your employees should be aware of.