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The Dangers of Casual Conversation:
Targeting International Business Travelers through Elicitation

By Luke Bencie

Elicitation. A ploy where a seemingly normal conversation is contrived to extract information about the individual, their work, or their colleagues that is not readily available to the public. 

“So, what do you do?”

How often have you been asked this seemingly innocent question on an aeroplane, at a dinner party, or some other random location where strangers might engage in conversation? You’ve probably even asked it to someone, yourself.  Believe it or not, these five words have been the catalyst, which has derailed million dollar research and development projects, provided an increase in market share to business competitors, and even been instrumental in the financial success or failure of hundreds of corporations. The reason the question “So, what do you do?” is so powerful, is that it opens up a Pandora’s Box for business executives (particularly during travel) to disclose information that is of some intrinsic value to the person asking. Simply put, it is an invitation from business competitors, government intelligence services, and/or other types of nefarious individuals to get inside your head without you realizing it. It is all part of the subtle technique for extracting information known as elicitation. 

Elicitation may seem like something out of a spy movie but it is actually more prevalent in the corporate world than one would imagine. In today’s hyper-competitive global business environment, any sliver of knowledge regarding a competitor’s intentions can be of extreme value. Ask any Fortune 500 security director what keeps him or her up at night and most answers will entail corporate espionage and the difficulty of safeguarding business intelligence and intellectual property. As a result, counter-espionage training courses for business executives have been steadily on the rise for the past decade. And don’t be fooled into thinking that it is just the international sales force or R&D scientists and engineers that require training… there are plenty of secretaries, administrative staff and field operations personnel who are equally targeted (often time with more success!) 

How It Works 

The elicitation process starts with the “elicitation operative” assessing the target. By asking direct, yet subtle, open-ended questions, the operative will usually assess the target in order to determine if the target has access to valuable information and whether or not they can be compromised. In some instances the casual encounter may actually be pre-planned. For example, the operative may learn that a business competitor is flying overseas on a certain date and will try to clandestinely reserve the seat next to him. Other times, the operative may just be canvassing a room – such as a trade show or convention floor – in an attempt to find an unsuspecting victim. 

The elicitation method exploits several fundamental aspects of our human nature. Most of us want to be polite and helpful, so we usually respond to questions honestly, even when posed by complete strangers. When presented to us, we tend to take the opportunity to show off what we know and we are usually tempted to say more than we should. Many other factors may be reasons for us to say something. We might want to retaliate when our opinion is being challenged – in order to convert the other person’s stance, or we may be working on something important and feel the need to share that information to make ourselves feel more significant. In another scenario, the operative might tell us about himself or herself (women can actually be more effective than men) and we may feel the need to reciprocate out of politeness. We might feel the need to vent about our job or the people we work for. Whatever drives us to open up about our professional lives can have serious and unexpected consequences, which can be hard to avoid unless one knows exactly what to look for. 

Common Elicitation Scenarios 

There are several scenarios the elicitation operative may use to convince you that he or she is a reliable or acceptable source to share the information with. They may pose as a reporter desiring to write a story about you or your company. This might seem like a senseless reason to disclose information, but a surprising number of people have fallen for this trick… most in an attempt to have their fifteen minutes of fame! Often times, the only way people may notice that they have been “conned” is if time passes and there is nothing in print. By this point it is certainly too late. 

Another tactic may involve the operative pretending to be a government agent, running an investigation on either the company or a specific employee. Questioning from a government official often times evokes fear (think IRS) in people to come clean. Similarly, elicitation operatives may also often pretend to have their own business. They may ask to get to know you better for a potential partnership or employment opportunity. When the potential to make money presents itself, the majority of people drop their guard. 

Another common problem is that we tend to weed out potential elicitors based on their ethnicity or gender. Take Ann Chapman for example. She was arrested in 2010 along with nine others and it is unlikely that anyone who saw the attractive redheaded model would have assumed that she was actually a spy for the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. However, she was charged with conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government. It is this preconceived notion that a certain gender or ethnicity cannot possibly be a spy that has caused so many people to begin trusting and forming relationships with others when they were really being used for ulterior motives. 

Another notable incident was the Maytag case in the late ’90s where elicitation played a major role in the intellectual property theft that cost Maytag millions of dollars. Maytag had been planning to come out with a washing machine that was more environmentally friendly and, unlike previous washing machine models, would be designed so the loading door would be on the front instead of on the top to be more energy efficient. Rival companies used various elicitation techniques in an attempt to gather more details about the project. One such method involved elicitation operatives, claiming to be college students, needing more information on the machine for their term papers. One employee received a phone call from an operative claiming to be an employee from another branch who needed the names of the people working on the project. Additionally, someone claiming to be from the local waterworks visited a test subject, who was using the washer at his home. The supposed waterworks employee asked to take a look at the man’s laundry room but never got the chance due to suspicious behaviour. 

Sometimes, elicitation doesn’t even have to be verbal… it can be written. One incident involved a university professor from a Southeast Asian country who taught a night class in Maryland. He asked his business administration students to write a paper on the company that they had worked for. One of the students ended up contacting the FBI, after the professor had asked her three times to expand her writing on the details of the company, including details about sensitive information. 

How to Protect Yourself 

Well-trained operatives can effectively utilize elicitation as a probing technique by playing on human traits. They are expert at getting you to drop your guard and unwittingly divulge information you should not, while leaving you thinking, “Wow, what a nice guy.” Here are some telltale signs you’re being elicited and assessed for suspect reasons. Look for these tactics in the elicitation operative: 

• Flatters you into revealing things that should make you suspicious about why a complete stranger would take so much interest in you, your family and your work

  • Agrees with everything you say to a fault, always complimenting or sympathizing with you, or saying how interesting or intelligent you are 
  • Engages in active listening and sustained eye contact that makes you feel like you are the only person in the room, and what you are saying is of the utmost importance 
  • Avoids answering questions or talking about themselves 
  • Repeats and summarizes what you’ve said as if studying or learning from 
  • you, rather than engaging in a simple, casual back-and-forth conversation 
  • Puts you on the defensive from time to time, compelling you to prove you are well-informed 
  • Poses leading questions or summations, or intentionally misunderstands, a topic in which you are more knowledgeable or expert, in an attempt to elicit proprietary intelligence 
  • Takes their time to thoughtfully respond after you have spoken 
  • Offers to pay for the drinks, perform a small favour, or even promises to send you a gift 
  • Asks for another get-together 

This is not to say that everyone with exceptional interpersonal skills is trying to elicit business intelligence and intellectual property from you, but it is important to remember that regardless of their motives, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to confide in a complete stranger. 


When engaged in a conversation with a stranger (or even someone who is not a stranger), you should always ask yourself, “Am I being elicited? What is this person’s need to know?” Instead of handing out any specific answers you should resort to vague responses or try to change the subject. You can turn the conversation on the person by saying you “do not know”, or suggest that he or she “look it up online.” Ultimately, if you are not afraid to be honest or the operative is not giving up, be upfront and say you “do not wish to discuss the subject at hand.” If an operative realizes you are not budging, you will most likely be left alone. 

So, the next time you’re on an aeroplane and the person sitting next to you asks, “So, what do you do?” pause for a moment and reflect on how you are going to answer. You never know if they could be an elicitation operative out to steal your secrets.