Shameful Business: Corporate Giants Target Activists And Non-profits For Corporate Espionage

from the can't-take-the-heat dept

It’s no secret that big companies, especially the giant multinationals, often have very advanced corporate espionage teams (sometimes staffed by former government spooks). The practices can sometimes be extreme and problematic, like when HP used its corporate espionage team to spy on board members and journalists. However, it seems that with the rise of consumer interest groups and very effective activists, many of these giant companies are using their corporate espionage team to spy on those non-profits and activists instead.

Many of the world’s largest corporations and their trade associations — including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Burger King, McDonald’s, Shell, BP, BAE, Sasol, Brown & Williamson and E.ON – have been linked to espionage or planned espionage against nonprofit organizations, activists and whistleblowers.

Many different types of nonprofit organizations have been targeted with corporate 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.

Corporations and their trade associations have been linked to a wide variety of espionage tactics against nonprofit organizations. The most prevalent tactic appears to be infiltration by posing a volunteer or journalist, to obtain information from a nonprofit. But corporations have been linked to many other human, physical and electronic espionage tactics against nonprofits. Many of these tactics are either highly unethical or illegal.

The full report includes plenty of examples, including the famous HBGary Federal/Hunton & Williams/Bank of America attempt to infiltrate Anonymous (and Wikileaks). It also includes stories about Stratfor, Monstanto and others. There was one example in there that I was unaware of, involving the giant pharmaceutical lobbying group PhRMA trying to spy on Jamie Love and Knowledge Ecology International. Love is a friend and KEI has done amazing work in informing the world about dangerous efforts by PhRMA and others to use international trade agreements to push through rules and laws that harm the public around both copyright and patent issues. So, perhaps it’s not a surprise that they’d spy on him, but it’s still quite troubling. The same report notes that a bunch of others, including Microsoft, hired another company closely associated with former IP czar Victoria Espinel to try to spy on Love and KEI:

Shortly after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Love says he received a visit in his offices from a man who said he was recently let go from his job at Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). “He said his job involved monitoring what I was doing, every day.” Love said. “He told me that PhRMA had hired a private investigator to investigate us, from the West Coast.” Separately, from 2007 to 2008, Love says that PhRMA and some companies in the copyright sector funded efforts to investigate the sources of funding for NGOs working on intellectual property issues, and to press those foundations to end their support of consumer advocacy.

Around 2008 or 2009, General Electric, Microsoft, Pfizer and other firms funded an effort by the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC) to provide intelligence on NGOs working on intellectual property issues. Love says, “They approached someone we knew, with a proposal to provide information on Knowledge Ecology International and other NGOs working on intellectual property issues, as part of a program to counter NGO advocacy efforts on behalf of consumers.” Eventually, Love says, the NFTC contracted with the Romulus Global Issues Management, an “international policy consultancy” that advises “several members of the Fortune 100.” The managing partner of Romulus is John Stubbs, whose wife is Victoria A. Espinel, a former Romulus employee. Espinel was U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IP czar) for the Obama administration, and is currently the CEO and President of the Business Software Alliance (BSA).

This is really playing dirty. While these companies may not appreciate what public interest groups like KEI do, digging into their activities and spying on them seems to go way beyond reasonable.

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Companies: hbgary federal, kei, phrma, us chamber of commerce, walmart

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Comments on “Shameful Business: Corporate Giants Target Activists And Non-profits For Corporate Espionage”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Many of the world?s largest corporations and their trade associations ? including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Walmart, Monsanto, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, Kraft, Coca-Cola, Chevron, Burger King, McDonald?s, Shell, BP, BAE, Sasol, Brown & Williamson and E.ON ? have been linked to espionage or planned espionage against nonprofit organizations, activists and whistleblowers.

For those of you who don’t know, the same actions are typically called “Terrorism” when poor people do it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Legal or not, a private company spending its own proceeds in this manner is questionable and it’s certainly a breach of fiduciary responsibility for a publicly traded corporation to do so, but when public funds (taxes) are used I imagine that it is quite illegal.

This does not mean that anyone will be held accountable. In fact, I expect them all to get huge bonuses.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Well it’s not their money they’re risking, there’s no real punishment(for them anyway) for screwing up and/or breaking the law, and the kind of people who rise to those positions tend to enjoy or even get a rush out of exercising their powers… with factors like that involved it’s no surprise that they would treat such things so lightly.

Anonymous Coward says:

unreasonable - but to be expected

the rules set up in the film Risky Business have been learnt by all – you have do whatever it takes however illegal to win / rule the world. Its only when Tom Cruise offers a prostitute to the Harvard School of Economics Professor that the Professor realises Tom is good enough for Harvard. Ever since then i have always found that the worse thing i can think a big company could do they are doing it and more besides.

Anonymous Coward says:

but not a damn thing will change and not a damn thing will be done about it either! had these tactics been used by a wealthy person or a group in a reverse situation, there would have been all hell to play and heads rolling, but as it’s done to benefit the profits of companies (and execs!) and to the detriment of the public, no one actually gives a toss!

erikjay (profile) says:


If there is no specific crime — breaking and entering, fraud, theft, blackmail, whatever — then anyone can investigate anything or anyone all they like. You can portray your adversaries however you choose to, and I don’t even disagree with most of the judgements, but these corporate mercenaries use many of the same techniques and technologies as Glenn Greenwald and other investigative reporters. Catch the malefactors when they’re dirty, but don’t rely on the justice system until it has been whipped into action through media campaigns… if then. Spying, per se, isn’t illegal, but some of the component actions may very well be. In honor of Thanksgiving, I will end with an abbreviated aphorism: sauce, goose, gander, okay?

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