Corporate espionage undermines democracy

November 26, 2013

It’s not just the NSA that has been caught spying on Americans. Some of our nation’s largest corporations have been conducting espionage as well, against civic groups.

For these big companies with pliable ethics, if they don’t win political conflicts with campaign donations or lobbying power, then they play dirty. Very dirty.

That’s the lesson of a new report on corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations, by my colleagues at Essential Information. The title of the report is Spooky Business, and it is apt.

Spooky Business is like a Canterbury Tales of corporate snoopery. The spy narratives in the report are lurid and gripping. Hiring investigators to pose as volunteers and journalists. Hacking. Wiretapping. Information warfare. Physical intrusion. Investigating the private lives of nonprofit leaders. Dumpster diving using an active duty police officer to gain access to trash receptacles. Electronic surveillance. On and on. What won’t corporations do in service of profit and power?

Many different types of nonprofit civic organizations have been targeted by corporate spies: environmental, public interest, consumer, food safety, animal rights, pesticide reform, nursing home reform, gun control and social justice.

A diverse constellation of corporations has planned or executed corporate espionage against these nonprofit civic organizations. Food companies like Kraft, Coca-Cola, Burger King, McDonald’s and Monsanto. Oil companies like Shell, BP and Chevron. Chemical companies like Dow and Sasol. Also involved are the retailers (Wal-Mart), banks (Bank of America), and, of course, the nation’s most powerful trade association: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Plenty of mercenary spooks have joined up to abet them, including former officials at the FBI, CIA, NSA, Secret Service and U.S. military. Sometimes even government contractors are part of the snooping.

In effect, big corporations have been able to hire portions of the national security apparatus, and train their tools of spycraft on the citizens groups of our nation.

This does not bode well for our democracy.

Our democracy is only as strong as the civic groups that work to preserve and protect it every day. To function effectively, these groups must be able to keep their inner workings secure from the prying eyes and snooping noses of the spies-for-hire.

Corporate espionage is a threat to individual privacy, too. As citizens, we do not relinquish our rights to privacy when we disagree with the ideas or actions of a corporation. It is especially galling that corporations should employ such unethical or illegal tactics to deprive Americans of their fundamental rights.

This is a subject with which I have some familiarity. In 1966, when I was working on auto safety, an enterprising young journalist at the New Republic wrote a story about private investigators tasked by General Motors to find “dirt” using false pretenses to interview my friends and teachers and by following me around the country. A Senate Committee, chaired by Senator Abraham Ribicoff, conducted a celebrated hearing confirming in detail General Motors’ unsavory tactics to try to silence my criticisms of unsafely designed automobiles. The uproar helped to pass the auto and highway safety laws in 1966.

The journalist’s name is James Ridgeway, and he kept at it. More than forty years later, he broke another important story — this time for Mother Jones — about Dow Chemical’s massive corporate espionage operation against Greenpeace, and other espionage activities by a private investigation firm called Beckett Brown International.

Ridgeway’s more recent articles, and the work of other journalists, make it clear that the self-regulation of private investigative and intelligence firms is a complete failure.

It’s time for law enforcement to focus some attention on such corporate spies and their flagrant invasion of privacy.

Where is the Justice Department? In France, when Électricité de France was caught spying on Greenpeace, there was an investigation and prosecutions. In Britain, Rupert Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World newspaper was ensnared in a telephone hacking scandal involving British public officials and celebrities. The Guardian newspaper excavated the story relentlessly, government investigations followed, with prosecutions ongoing. Here in the United States, the Justice Department has been silent.

How about Congress? Corporate espionage against nonprofits is an obvious topic for a congressional investigation and hearings. But, alas, Congress too has been somnolent.

How much corporate espionage against nonprofits is taking place? Without investigations, subpoenas and hearings, no one really knows. But it is likely that there is more corporate espionage than we know about, because the snooping corporations and their private investigators toil mightily to hide their dirty tricks — which are designed to intimidate and deter people from speaking out and standing up against corporate crimes, frauds and abuses. Is the little we know merely the tip of the iceberg?

PHOTO: A magnifying glass is held in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin May 21, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski


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I am glad to see Ralph Nader back on his own turf, rather than wrecking a Presidential election like he did in 2000. The “passive” spy networks are Facebook and Google, saving copies and collecting information on everyone who uses them. Of course, they are only “passive” until a big player needs the information and pays them for it.

Posted by OnTheGround | Report as abusive

Strange Ralph Nader would critize the very methods he used to kill the Corvair and, by extension, the Falcon. Suffer baby, suffer

Posted by elsewhere | Report as abusive

And we are worried about the NSA?

Posted by chekovmerlin | Report as abusive

We must remember one particular fact of history regarding American business. If it weren’t for corporate espionage (actually stealing ideas from other companies), we never would have developed the cloth industry in this country, especially in New England that we did. We stole it from the British. Think about that.
There are two sides to corporate espionage. However, I would separate out the lobbying and putting money in elections as is done as different from the “good old American (and every other country’s corporate tactic) of stealing good ideas.” That’s been going on for at least 6,000 years the world around. For example, how does one think that the non-Chinese countries in Asia learned to develop silk industries and compete with China in harvesting silk and making it into cloth? By saying, “Gee, will you tell me how to do this so I can drive you into the ground.” Nader should have separated out his justifiable complaints into two different areas. They really are different.

Posted by chekovmerlin | Report as abusive

Ralph didn’t wreck any election, that canard has been debunked sooo many times ….

Posted by Aquifer1 | Report as abusive

chekov – this isn’t corporate espionage for he sake of stealing ideas – to get one up on the competition – this is about discrediting and sabotaging one’s opponents …

Posted by Aquifer1 | Report as abusive

I took the time to read the report. A lot of it was unauthenticated allegations, particularly the first portions dealing with Greenpeace. At lot of allegations, but short on facts, in my opinion. Nor should one be surprised. While I believe organizations should not interfere with non profits, monitoring their activities is not really an issue, so long as they stay within the law.

I was astounded to learn that these organizations don’t shred their documents. The courts have ruled that once you throw something away, it is no longer private.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

good Ole Ralph nader, a true consumer advocate. I’ve heard him speak many times years ago and all his predictions have come true! No wonder he is so hated amongst the government and corporations.

Posted by QuidProQuo | Report as abusive

Wow… So corporations hire people to look into organizations that are trying to damage them. Shocking. Especially since many of those organizations are themselves often willing to break the law, in pursuit of their own agenda… and who are also often motivated by nothing more than hysteria, rather than actual facts. But of course… when Greenpeace members do something like illegally boarding an oil rig, that’s different. That’s not breaking the law, because they’re battling the big evil oil industry.

So I guess the way it’s supposed to work is that… Industry and government has to follow the absolute letter of the law at all times… but as long as you’re an “activist”, you can just do whatever you want… and no business should be allowed to protect themselves.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Has “Easter” come early?

Posted by ThomasShaf | Report as abusive

Try posting some investigative information on the Fukushima disaster if you want a first hand experience with hired goons and trolls.

Posted by abinico | Report as abusive