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