Currently, the corporations that have the most information about their rival companies and organizations are the ones that have a financial and competitive edge over their competition. When this data is collected legally, it is known as competitive intelligence. However, many big businesses are opting for more unethical and unlawful ways of gathering information, which is when competitive intelligence turns into corporate espionage. According to a recent report written by Gary Ruskin of Essential Information, the amount of corporate spying that occurs today has escalated in the past decade. This can be attributed several factors, including the growing numbers of nonprofit organizations that threaten corporations. Ruskin’s report includes narratives of big businesses such as Walmart, Kraft, Dow Chemical, Bank of America, McDonald’s, and several more adopting illegal techniques to gather intelligence about nonprofit organizations.
How is Corporate Espionage Executed?
In the past, companies would hire private detectives to collect competitive intelligence. Many of these investigators would adhere to a strict moral and ethical code that was quickly tossed out as corporations continued to grow. Now, businesses are creating their own personal team of investigators. The past employers of these staff members include government intelligence agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), the FBI, and many other law enforcement agencies. In order to gather information, the techniques employed by these ex-agents include:
- Physical Surveillance
- Creating False Identities
- Theft of Confidential Information
- Exposing False Documents
- Wiretaps and Hacking
- D-lines (digging through trash)
- Breaking and Entering
Ruskin’s report contained witness accounts of these unethical practices taking place, as well as several emails sent between the agents themselves. One witness reported having to dress in all black as her boyfriend, an investigator, stole documents during a D-line against Greenpeace. Corporations also hired ex-police officers and had them use their badges as a way to infiltrate these institutions. Some investigators even created a false identity and became a member of a nonprofit organization, giving them access to company records. Financial statements, social security numbers, and physical items like laptops were all stolen from organizations by these corporate spies.
Why Target Nonprofits?
According to Ruskin, “many different types of nonprofits have been targeted with espionage, including environmental, anti-war, public interest, consumer, food safety, pesticide reform, nursing-home reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control groups.” As these organizations gain more power, big businesses begin to feel threatened. Nonprofit organizations seek to protect consumers from corporations. A company that is conducting unethical practices can risk losing billions of dollars as well as their reputation if consumers find out. When a nonprofit attempts to expose such practices, hiring a team of investigators can cost less than a potential leak. Ruskin’s report included several examples of these corporations acting out against threats. During the 1990s, Greenpeace rain a campaign concerning the addition of chlorine in plastic and paper production. Greenpeace criticized Dow Chemical for their use of chlorine, who in turn hired investigators to infiltrate Greenpeace’s headquarters by any means necessary. According to Ruskin, companies not only searched for information, but made it up as well. WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Julian Assange sought to expose a scandal within Bank of America. In order to combat this attack, Bank of America hired investigators who attempted to end WikiLeaks. Their proposed tactics included creating fake documents that would be submitted to WikiLeaks, then exposing these documents for being false one they were published. By doing so, WikiLeaks would lose its credibility with the public.
What is Being Done to Stop Corporate Espionage?
Because corporate espionage has only recently become an issue, most corporations aren’t prosecuted. Most businesses are very careful to cover their tracks, making instances of undercover operations hard to pinpoint. Companies will hire outside investigators, who in turn will hire separate contractors. When an organization attempts to prosecute a corporation for espionage, the case will often get dropped because they cannot take the full blame. The report also mentioned that corporations hired ex-employees from intelligence agencies because other law enforcement officials would be less likely to prosecute them. Sometimes, these agencies are the ones that are ones conducting unethical investigations. According to Ruskin, Congress must enact policies that will protect these organizations. He believes that until official measures are taken, corporate espionage will continue to occur without repercussions.