The Fifth Surveillance: Corporate Spying On Non-Profits

from the more-revolving-doors dept

In the age of innocence that was brought to an end by Edward Snowden’s revelations, we broadly knew of three kinds of surveillance: the classic kind, by countries against other countries; the industrial kind, by companies against companies; and — the most recent addition — the Google/Facebook kind, carried out by companies against their customers. Snowden made us aware that countries also carried out large-scale surveillance against huge numbers of their own citizens, the vast majority of whom had done nothing to warrant that invasion of their privacy. But there’s a fifth kind of surveillance that has largely escaped notice, even though it represents a serious danger for democracy and freedom: spying carried out by companies against non-profit organizations whose work threatens their profits in some way.

A new report called “Spooky Business” (pdf), from the Essential Information organization (founded by Ralph Nader in 1982), throws some much-needed light on this murky world:

The corporate capacity for espionage has skyrocketed in recent years. Most major companies now have a chief corporate security officer tasked with assessing and mitigating “threats” of all sorts — including from nonprofit organizations. And there is now a surfeit of private investigations firms willing and able to conduct sophisticated spying operations against nonprofits.

As the study reveals, this kind of activity is now commonplace:

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.

The victims of this spying, and the methods employed, are varied:

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.

Corporations have been linked to a wide variety of espionage tactics. 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.

Most of the report is devoted to describing some of the high-profile surveillance operations that have come to light so far. These are truly fascinating — all-the-more so for being real-life spy stories, not works of fiction. Here’s a sample, involving someone whose name and work have appeared many times on Techdirt:

James Love is the Director of Knowledge Ecology International, an organization that works to improve access to essential drugs, to reduce pharmaceutical drug prices worldwide, and to protect consumers in copyright. Love is an award-winning advocate; in 2006, KEI won a MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, and in 2013, Love won a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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).

One key fact to emerge from this litany of dubious activity, is how closely it is related to the other kinds of surveillance, and the groups that carry them out:

One of the troubling aspects of recent corporate espionage against nonprofits is the use of current and former police, current government contractors, and former CIA, NSA, FBI, military, Secret Service and other law enforcement officers.

Even active-duty CIA operatives are allowed to sell their expertise to the highest bidder, “a policy that gives financial firms and hedge funds access to the nation’s top-level intelligence talent,” writes Eamon Javers. Little is known about the CIA’s moonlighting policy, or which corporations have hired current CIA operatives. According to Javers, “There is much about the policy that is unclear, including how many officers have availed themselves of it, how long it has been in place and what types of outside employment have been allowed.” Regarding the CIA process for approving moonlighting, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo said “My sense is that it is a rubber stamp deal….No one?s really looking at it or keeping a close eye on it.”

This intermingling of the various kinds of spying gives rise to a phenomenon that Techdirt readers know well:

In effect, the revolving door for intelligence, military and law enforcement officials is yet another aspect of the corporate capture of the federal agencies, and another government subsidy for corporations. Taxpayer funds are expended to train the officials who work for the CIA, NSA, Secret Service, military and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies. When these employees leave for employment in the private sector, corporations reap the benefits of this taxpayer-funded education, training and experience. It?s a great deal for the companies that hire these former agents, but not for taxpayers.

That fact is just one reason why we should be concerned about the rapid rise of this fifth form of surveillance. It’s leading to a further blurring between government and commercial interests that places non-profit organizations and the people who work in them in an even more vulnerable position.

“Spooky Business” should be required reading for anyone working in this field. As well as detailing the highly-dubious — and probably illegal — activities of corporations here, it also suggests basic ways to reduce the impact of that surveillance. At a time when it’s clear that multiple kinds of spying are on the increase, we all need as much help as we can get.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Comments on “The Fifth Surveillance: Corporate Spying On Non-Profits”

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Anonymous Coward says:

“James Love is the Director of Knowledge Ecology International, an organization that works to improve access to essential drugs, to reduce pharmaceutical drug prices worldwide, and to protect consumers in copyright.”

This is one of the reasons I have a distaste for anti-competitive laws like patents. The monopoly rents they bring a company can then be used to fund things like espionage and back door dealings with the FDA.

Patents create incentive to manipulate studies and regulatory bodies and the monopoly rents they provide creates the funding to do it. This potentially introduces a bias in research in favor of patented products over whatever works best since a patent holder has a vested interest in ensuring that their patented product receives (the appearance of) favorable research results even if that means manipulating the research they conduct or any research published on the product. Without patents the incentive is simply for a company to adopt whatever works best since they don’t have any reason to ensure that whatever they have a patent on receives favorable publications over another product.

A company has no incentive to sell product A over B if B works better in the absence of patents however if the company has a patent on product A and not B the company now has incentive to manipulate the legal system to not approve B (effectively banning it) while manipulating the research to ensure that A gets favorable publications. The monopoly rents they receive from their patent provides them the funding to do this.

Fundamentally the very existence of patents creates mistrust in the medical field since it perverts the incentive structure away from evaluating a product solely based on its merits and towards evaluating it based on its patent status and the amount of resources the patent holder is willing to put to manipulate the system. This is one of the reasons, possibly the biggest reason, I think pharmaceutical patents should be done away with.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Patents creates further incentive to avoid any kind of competition, period.

EUs competition commission has a lot conglamorate pricefixing cases.

But increasingly they also have monopoly cases of market manipulation where a company pays a competitor to destroy their stock of a product, general company to company bribes “with these money you declare not to do this or we will crush you. K?” and cases where the patent is used in a broader sense than intended. The last one is a numbersgame. Most judges will see through it, but in the end, the few wins will pay for the many losses!

Anonymous Coward says:

Kind of related...

I work for an cable ISP that has a whole “security” team dedicated to monitoring employees’ communications both at work and home. The terms of our employment say that they can monitor all communications on company systems. And since most of us live in areas where the company is the only really viable option, we use the company for our home internet ISP. So, they sniff our traffic, read our online comments and basically monitor all our internet usage. Anyone who says anything online that the company doesn’t like is likely to be fired. Which is why I use a VPN, although I’m imagine that also puts a black mark by my name.

Anonymous Coward says:

Apparently the US government has some sort of immunity to charges, criminal and civil, related to spying. I was unaware of any such carte blanche immunity being gifted to corporations, well – other than the retroactive telco thing a while back. AFAIK, these are actionable and probably will end up in court. They spy on individuals too, not sure how they get away with it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Energy, health

See Wiki:
Free energy suppression conspiracy theory

Subsection, Current claims of suppression:
Some examples of individuals that allegedly fell victim to suppression, harassment or death, are: Thomas Henry Moray, Stanley Meyer’s water fuel cell and Eugene Mallove.

See wiki: Hydraulic Ram
Toward the end of the 19th century, interest waned as electricity and electric pumps became widely available.

See wiki:
Practicing without a license

Subsection, Noted incidents:
The “yogurt defense” was made famous by the trial of Carol Downer, one of the developers of menstrual extraction. She was arrested at her self-help group and charged with practicing medicine without a license, as she inserted yogurt into the vagina of another woman to treat a yeast condition. Carol Downer was acquitted; the jury did not equate inserting yogurt with practicing medicine.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Actually, that apathetic population is desperate to find an approach to end the looming fascist tyranny growing out of the marriage of the federal government and US/international corporations, that has a snowball’s chance in hell of success.

– Can’t use the law – its been rewritten in favor of the corporations and the government, who can re-interpret it at whim.

– Can’t use the courts – they’re controlled and judges face blackmail by the NSA if they don’t toe the official line.

– Can’t use the media – they’re owned and controlled and pretty much lie about everything now. If they don’t the few honest journalists left can now be arrested, just like in any other dictator led fascist banana republic.

– Can’t use violent overthrow – they took most of our weapons and have a huge array of top secret high tech anti-crowd warfare weapons, that they would just love to try out.

– Can’t use protest – the press necessary to awaken the public is owned and controlled and avoids all mention of such protests.

Suggestions, (that do have a snowball’s chance in hell of success) are welcomed.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“I too find this “blame the victim” mentality to be quite pointless and incorrect.”

Its the general bent all politicians and of most of the Truth-Free Press sputum, often called news.

And sadly, it works.

Just ask around and see how many think that poor people are poor on purpose, because they’re too lazy to get rich.

I believe the process is called social engineering.

Vernon Huffman (user link) says:

Re: Re: snowball's chance

Our hope lies in radical localization. By learning to grow our own food, pedal our own bikes, and care for our neighbors, we can build a functional democracy from the grassroots. We empower each other to sustain general strike, broad boycotts, and tax refusal, starving the beast that threatens us.

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: snowball's chance

Hell, they saw you coming.

They’re already working on laws that make home gardens illegal unless the home owners follow a standard regimen of costly government inspections for food safety and quality – all for your own good of course. 🙂

On the other hand, a general strike is the absolutely ONLY way you’re ever gonna be able to starve this beast, but they already got us afraid of our neighbours and each of us toeing a particular partisan label – divided and conquered – so the concept of solidarity could never be realized in America, until long after American homeless start starving in the streets by the thousands and citizens start disappearing in numbers greater than 1000 a day.

I figure that will take about another six to ten years and by that time, the Mob will have done to America what they do to small businesses they take over – drain’em and drop’em and move on to the next one.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Even active-duty CIA operatives are allowed to sell their expertise to the highest bidder”

If corporations are paying US government agents to spy on non-profit NGOs. Wouldn’t you suspect they’re also paying US government agents to spy on for-profit corporations over seas?

US officials keep insisting they don’t use their global spying networks for economic espionage. But it’s stories like this article, that lead me to believe US claims are almost certainly untrue.

If anything, US corporations are most likely using the CIA and NSA as a front for their economic spying operations around the world.

Concerned Aussie says:

Attacking Corporate dissent on all fronts

Here in Australia I’m sure that these tactics are used, however Australian companies via the Liberal National Party (presently in Government) are using a multipronged approach to ensure that all activism is quelled.

Banning the right to protest.

Removing funding options such as the Charity status of environmental groups.

GEMont (profile) says:

Hooda thunk it?

Well, all I can say is that its a darn good thing that the MAFIA and Drug Cartels have not been able to use the half century of tax free drug profits to buy their way into and control the Top 500 corporations and the US federal government and its many agencies, because then we’d be seeing things like massive in-your-face spying on the public and on non-profit organizations that threaten corporate and criminal profits, and bribery and coercion to stop funding agencies from assisting such non-profits, and collusion between the various super-big MAFIA controlled corporations and current members of the various federal government’s agencies and ….

oh… wait a minute…..

never mind.

allengarvin (profile) says:


“Most major companies now have a chief corporate security officer tasked with assessing and mitigating “threats” of all sorts — including from nonprofit organizations.”

Wat?? The scare quotes, the weasel words “of all sorts”, the addition of “including nonprofits!”: This is the silliest, fake-scariest description of the CSO position that I’ve ever seen.

Anonymous Coward says:

No government NOR corporation should have the ability, the,…. the SYSTEM, SETUP, to STORE, information and hence SPY like creeps, infringing upon the individual rights……FULL.FUCKING.STOP

lets preserve the earth by building a doomsday weapon that can destroy it, that simutaneoisly provides energy, then put the doomsday button next to the energy button

Corruption, is not an illusion

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