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21 minAPR 16
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International Espionage With a Side of Corn

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When you have a really good idea, copycats may try to steal it for themselves — and that’s what investigators assumed was happening when an unfamiliar man was spotted in a cornfield in Iowa in 2011. They knew that companies like Monsanto were using those fields to grow new types of corn seeds, and that the company was notoriously tight-lipped about the trade secrets behind its crops; farmers didn’t even necessarily know what was being grown on their land. That secretiveness was not without good reason, though. The man in the cornfield, Robert Mo, was indeed trying to smuggle corn seed to China, as a form of intellectual property theft. Mara Hvistendahl, investigative reporter for The Intercept, and author of The Scientist and the Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage unpacks the story and explores the wide world of international idea-pilfering: from corn seeds to look-alike cars. According to Hvistendahl, in this war of confidential information, countries like China are notorious for creating knockoffs and bootlegs, while countries like the United States are deeply invested in keeping the secrets behind the originals just that — secret.