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.