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Christopher Burgess
Contributing Writer

The need to be victorious — espionage in sports

Aug 21, 20176 mins
Data BreachDLP SoftwareSecurity

From the early Olympiads to today's modern sports, espionage in sports has existed. Here's a look at some modern-day incidents — hacking, spying and insider antics.

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Credit: Thinkstock

For some, the rules of fair play are the norm. For others, they never existed. It matters not if it is baseball, football, sailing, Formula One or soccer (the other futbal); the need to win, to be victorious, drives individuals to skirt the rules of fair play and engage in espionage in sports.

Mike Rowbottom tells us in his book Foul Play how the “bronze statues of Zeus which had been erected over the years on the road leading into the stadium at Olympia, where the Games had taken place since 776 BC. These statues were financed through fines extracted from Olympic competitors found to have cheated, and were inscribed with the details of their misdeeds.”

Let’s look at some of the more recent examples.

Sailing — Spying in The America’s Cup

It seems as if spying is a recurring theme within the sailing world. While open sea sailing may provide an adrenaline rush, it appears inter-team surveillance among America’s Cup participants runs a close second. The Guardian tells us how the six participating teams in the 2017 America’s Cup, the 35th edition, “make no apologies for keeping a close eye on one another” as they sail toward the “world’s oldest trophy.”

While surveillance as described above is expected and the norm, sometimes teams choose to look a bit more closely. According to The Telegraph, in 2009, Swiss authorities detained a man who “admitted he was one of a team of spies hired by (Oracle) to illegally break into facilities and take photographs and secure information.”

During the 2003 edition of the race, The New York Times reported that the U.S. team, OneWorld, was “penalized for possessing proprietary design information that belonged to rival(s).”

Football — Game plans leaked

In mid-November 2016, Wake Forest University complained that their game plan had been leaked to Louisville University. It was then that they began sleuthing to determine how it happened. It didn’t take them long.

Sports Illustrated notes, ”Wake Forest said that radio analyst Tommy Elrod, who has since been dismissed, provided opposing teams ‘confidential and proprietary game preparations on multiple occasions’ beginning in 2014.”

Multiple schools over the course of three years received their opponents’ plays. An insider with access broke trust.

Why? Elrod was not retained after the 2013 season on the Wake Forest coaching staff when a new coach, Dave Clawson, arrived. To put it succinctly, Elrod was pissed off.

In football, and many other walks of life, we regularly see the transfer of the contents of team’s playbooks and signals between competing teams through the leveraging of insider knowledge.

They don’t break into the opposing team’s locker rooms and make off with the playbook. No need — every player is expected to memorize their playbook; executing on the field is not an open-book exam. Teams wait for their opponent to release a player and the opposition scoops them up for those tidbits of knowledge retained from memorizing the playbook.

Really? Yes, really.

Here are a couple of examples culled from

The Miami Dolphins cut a player prior to the start of the regular season. The New York Jets promptly signed the player, released him, and then resigned him to their practice squad. Who were the Jets playing that Sunday night? Yup, you guessed it, the Dolphins.

And in the late-1980s, the Buffalo Bills signed a player released by the Dolphins the day before the Bills-Dolphins game. The player was never activated. He was seen in street clothes on the sideline, whispering into the coach’s ear the meaning of every hand-signal from the Dolphins bench.

Baseball — Computer system hacked

In January 2017, Major League Baseball fined the St. Louis Cardinals $2 million, ordering the Cardinals to pay the sum to the Houston Astros, and gave the Astros two picks in the 2017 draft. Why? The Kansas City Star tells us that Cardinals director of scouting, Christopher Correa, hacked into the Astros computer system.

How did he do that? According to a Houston Chronicle article, Correa hacked into the email of Sig Mejdal, who had transferred to the Astros from the Cardinals. When Majdal left the Cardinals, he turned over his laptop and the passwords/credentials needed to access the information to Correa, Chron reported.

Yes, wait for it.  

In an egregious case of horrible cyber hygiene, Majdal used a similar (guessable) password for access to his Astro email and the “Ground Control” player information database. 

What happened to Correa? He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to 46 months in prison and was ordered to pay the Astros $279,038.65.

Women’s World Cup Soccer — Secret surveillance

In 2007, Women’s World Cup was taking place in China, and the team from Denmark discovered their team’s conference room was being monitored. Not the discrete microphone in the light or the pinhole camera peeking through the ceiling tiles. No, The New York Times reported two men with video cameras were sitting behind a two-way mirror in the hotel conference room. (An aside, during this writer’s last visit to China, his assigned hotel room had been “upgraded” and had 11 mirrors and, coincidentally, was located next to the “utility room.”)

The Danish team declined to pursue the issue beyond reporting it to FIFA. However, when China beat Denmark during the competition, the head coach of the Danish team declined to shake hands with the Chinese coach after the match.

Formula One — Intellectual property theft

We’ll close with one of the most expensive fines every levied as a result of intellectual property theft. Team McLaren Mercedes found itself digging into its pockets to pay the $100 million fine the International Automobile Federation assessed in September 2007. McLaren was found guilty of using data that was purloined from Ferrari, it’s main rival. The New York Times in covering the story notes that 780 pages of Ferrari design documents were found in the possession of McLaren’s technical director. How did they come to be in his possession?

The Guardian tells us a trusted insider within the Ferrari team passed the documents to McLaren’s technical director. Why? He was unhappy with organizational changes taking place within Team Ferrari. Vengeance is a powerful motivator for the unhappy insider.

No profession is devoid of mischief, and finding espionage in sports is not surprising. Like many industries, insiders come and go with regularity, sometimes directly to a competitor. Perhaps we can learn from the Greeks’ bronze statues of Zeus and use public forums to educate others when new methodologies are discovered in the theft of intellectual property and other sensitive data.

Christopher Burgess
Contributing Writer

Christopher Burgess is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former senior security advisor to Cisco, and has also been a CEO/COO with various startups in the data and security spaces. He served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Cisco gave him a stetson and a bottle of single-barrel Jack upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit, Senior Online Safety.

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