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The methods varied, but in some cases individually crafted e-mails that, armed with viruses, would sweep recipients’ entire hard-drives for data and steal passwords, documents and confidential documents.

The agency said in a statement that this type of data-theft was “cost-efficient” for foreign intelligence services and that “espionage over the Internet is cheap, provides good results and is low-risk.” Veire would not elaborate, but said it was not clear who was behind the attacks.

The attacks often occurred when companies were negotiating large contracts, the agency said.