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Mike dooley had to find a needle in a haystack. Dooley, a business-research specialist, works for the Ball Corp., a manufacturer of food and beverage containers in Broomfield, Colo. He had heard rumors that a competitor was planning to construct a new building. But nothing had been announced, and Dooley had no idea where to look for clues.

Fortunately, the information came in his daily E-mail from CyberAlert Inc., which produces a surveillance robot, or "bot," that scours the Internet for news on topics chosen by its customers. Dooley had set his bot to search for the competitor's name. In the online edition of a local newspaper, it picked up the announcement of "an environmental filing" for the rival's new warehouse.

Surveillance bots aren't new to the Internet, but they have become more powerful in ferreting out information that a CEO might want to know. Newer bots can go deep, delving into message boards, scouring pages not written in HTML, and even searching the portions of sites that are considered technically out-of-bounds.

"It's not necessarily spying, but rather staying abreast of what the competition is up to," says Somesh C. Nigam, CEO of E-procurement-software start-up Vinimaya Inc., in Tarrytown, N.Y. Nigam uses Intelliseek's Corporate Intelligence Service to eavesdrop on message boards where potential customers talk to one another. After learning that purchasing agents were complaining bitterly about technical difficulties in processing electronic transactions, Nigam got the idea for his company's newest product: ViniSyndicate, which translates data for B2B buyers and sellers.

The cost of bot surveillance varies widely. Some do-it-yourself technology can be downloaded from the Internet free. CyberAlert, the company Dooley used, charges $395 per topic per month for daily reports. Another bot provider, RivalWatch Inc., in Santa Clara, Calif., charges from $20,000 to several hundred thousand dollars for a one-year subscription to its service.

But be forewarned: bot surveillance is fast becoming a legal issue, according to Brian Proffitt, managing editor of BotSpot.com. Some sites don't want snoops poring through their pages, he says. Popular auction site eBay sued a bot that compared sales on auction sites, accusing it of trespassing.

Be wary, too: bots are spying on your Web site now. So consider counterespionage. Bot-spotting software is available.

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