That governments deploy undercover law enforcement officers to infiltrate, gather information on, and subvert protest movements has long been common knowledge. Less well-known, however, is the extent to which some of the world's most profitable businesses have hired private spies to keep tabs on political movements they perceive as a threat to their power and profits.
"The leaked documents suggest the use of secretive corporate security firms to gather intelligence about political campaigners has been widespread."
—Meiron Jones and Rob Evans, the Guardian
Hundreds of pages of newly leaked documents—reported on for the first time Tuesday by the Guardian and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ)—provide an unprecedented glimpse into this mysterious world of "corporate spies," who have been hired by major companies like the German carmaker Porsche, the U.S.-based manufacturing giant Caterpillar, and the Royal Bank of Scotland to monitor anti-war demonstrations, protests against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and environmental campaigns against the destruction of the planet.
"The leaked documents suggest the use of secretive corporate security firms to gather intelligence about political campaigners has been widespread," report the Guardian's Rob Evans and Meirion Jones.
Despite this fact—and despite claims by police that corporate spies embedded in protest movements frequently outnumber undercover law enforcement officers—these private firms face "little or no regulation."
And while these "security" companies have attempted to fashion themselves as run-of-the-mill service providers, they are in reality quite different.
"One key distinguishing factor is that corporate investigation firms are often staffed and run by former spies and veterans of special forces, even if they work alongside graduates, accountants and lawyers," TBIJ notes. "Some of the companies even have private military arms."
Speaking anonymously to the Guardian, a man who claims he personally infiltrated political groups for a corporate spy firm said that his work involved more than merely collecting information on protesters.
"He described how the spies surreptitiously fostered conflicts within a campaign to set activists against each other, in order to wear them down and make them lose their political motivation," the Guardian reports.
One of the companies featured heavily in the cache of documents is the private security firm C2i International, which has deployed spies on behalf of Porsche and other major companies to infiltrate groups of environmentalists and anti-Iraq war campaigners.
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According to the Guardian, "documents show that C2i claimed it had 'real-time intelligence assets' in a range of environmental campaigns including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, local green groups in Oxford and 'all anti‐aviation groups.'"
In 2008, C2i also "pitched its services to Donald Trump's property development firm, which was seeking to create a huge golf course and build a hotel and flats on ecologically sensitive land in Scotland." C2i reportedly warned Trump that his company was "under threat from a consortium of environmental activists," but it is unclear whether Trump took C2i up on its offer.
In one case exposed by the leaked documents, C2i—hired by Caterpillar—spied on the family of Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer in 2003 while protesting the destruction of Palestinian homes. The bulldozer was manufactured and sold to the Israeli military by Caterpillar.
As the Guardian reports, "Corrie's family took legal action against Caterpillar, alleging that the firm was complicit in war crimes by exporting bulldozers to the Israelis knowing that they would be used to demolish Palestinian homes."
Just days after U.S. judges dismissed the lawsuit, Corrie's mother spoke to members of the campaign supporting the family's legal action on a conference call. C2i appears to have listened in on the call and obtained the campaign's notes pertaining to the conversation.
After learning that her conversation was infiltrated by private spies, Corrie's mother Cindy told the Guardian that it is "really distasteful" that corporate operatives would lie about their identities to listen to a conversation she believed only consisted of supporters.
Reacting to the newly leaked trove of documents, author and environmentalist Naomi Klein—who has written extensively on the exploits of corporate contractors—argued that given the enormous human and environmental abuses global corporations have committed, it is not surprising that they would hire spies to monitor those who threaten to expose their criminality.
"Surveillance firms spied on campaign groups for big companies, leak shows" - Read this + think about all the human + environmental abuses, all the trillions lost to tax-dodging, that these companies have gotten away with. No wonder they fear our power. https://t.co/QfCepfzbyC— Naomi Klein (@NaomiAKlein) December 12, 2017