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?