Corporate Spying Against Citizen Activists

There are the official stories that we tell ourselves about constitutional democracy and citizen rights -- and then there are the ugly political realities of the struggle against unaccountable power.  Gary Ruskin, a veteran activist (most recently in the California voter initiative for GMO labeling), shines a bright light on the latter in a new report, Spooky Business:  Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations (pdf file), just published by Essential Information

Ruskin’s report exposes a world about which we have only fragmentary, accidental knowledge.  But enough IS known to confirm that large corporations carry out a broad range of corporate espionage activities against citizen activists for exercising their constitutional rights (to petition their government for change and to publicly speak out on public policies).  

“The corporate capacity for espionage has skyrocketed in recent years,” writes Ruskin.  “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.”  Many of these “security” personnel are former intelligence, military and law enforcement officers who once worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), US military, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Secret Service and local police departments. 

None of this should be entirely surprising.  The early labor movement in the US was often illegally attacked and infiltrated by Pinkerton thugs.  In 1965, General Motors notoriously hired private detectives to investigate Ralph Nader’s private life and try to dig up incriminating information about him.  Nader, then a 31-year-old unknown, had just published a book, Unsafe at Any Speed, which exposed the designed-in dangers of automobiles.  The revelation of GM’s tactics and its awareness of its cars’ defects unleashed a ferocious backlash, enough to make Nader a famous crusader and to spur enactment of a new federal agency to regulate auto safety.  More recently, police and corporate infiltration of the Occupy movement has occurred.  (David Graeber’s recent book, The Democracy Project, has some good accounts of this.  See also The Progressive magazine.)

While Ruskin concedes that his accounts represent only “a few snapshots, taken mostly at random arising from brilliant strokes of luck,” his report documents an alarming range of acts of corporate espionage or planned espionage.  Among the highly unethical and/or illegal acts committed:  surveillance, infiltration, manipulation and dirty tricks.

Ruskin documents how these acts are associated directly or indirectly with 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.  Their targets include nonprofits, activists and whistleblowers involved in environmental, anti-war, public interest, consumer, food safety, pesticide reform, nursing home reform, gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control issues.

The goal of corporate espionage is typically to thwart new environmental, consumer safety or social justice laws that might impose costly new obligations on companies.  Another goal is to protect a company’s image or brands from public criticism.  As Ruskin writes:

“For many companies, the intangible value of their brand is a precious asset.  For this reason, many companies may view nonprofits and whistleblowers as potent and unpredictable adversaries, and want to know everything they can about them.  Companies take ‘brand risk’ seriously, which also leads them to outsource their efforts to target nonprofit organizations, thus reducing the brand risk of such activities and hiding behind shields of plausible deniability.”

The dumpster-diving, surveillance, undercover “volunteers,” wiretaps, phony documents, stolen computers, phone voicemail hacking, disinformation campaigns, false dossiers, and other furtive unethical and illegal activities, are particularly outrageous because the victims generally have little recourse.  It can be very difficult for a targeted group to verify what is going on, let alone bring a rogue actor to justice.  My colleagues and I with the Commons Strategies Group had our own experience in this regard, in which our emails were being filtered and selectively deleted.

One rare exception to this pattern, still unfolding, Ruskin reports, is a Greenpeace USA lawsuit filed in November 2010 against Dow Chemical, Sasol North America, Dezenhall Resources, Ketchum and others.  Greenpeace alleged that the defendants had stolen confidential personal, financial and employment records, including “confidential strategy information” about its campaigns against toxic chemicals, global warming, nuclear energy, genetic engineering and the pollution of fisheries and oceans.”  Greenpeace also charged that an industry consultant had posed as a prospective campaign volunteer to surveil Greenpeace’s offices.

Although Greenpeace’s suit was initially dismissed in 2011, it was re-filed and is still pending.  Several complaints that had been dismissed are now on appeal at the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.  (More on the Greenpeace litigation can be found here.)

Ruskin’s report serves up a number of other accounts of corporate espionage: 

  • A public relations firm used a corporate intelligence firm, S2i, to dig up information about nonprofit organizations that opposed genetically engineered food. 
  • According to the Washington Post, the firm BBI [Beckett Brown International] spied on nursing home activists who wanted improved conditions at a Maryland nursing home. 
  • For more than ten years, a prominent volunteer for gun control groups known as Mary McFate, was in fact Mary Lou Sapone, who was paid by corporations to spy on citizen groups.
  • A Washington security firm made a proposal to a powerful law firm to help the firm’s client, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to discredit the Chamber’s nonprofit critics, especially U.S. Chamber Watch.  The scheme involves the creation of a phony document and a fake insider persona and communications.
  • In a separate action, the same firm proposed dirty tricks to try to discredit WikiLeaks and smear journalist Glenn Greenwald, according to Ruskin’s report.
  • Jamie Love, the Director of Knowledge Ecology International and a formidable policy adversary of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, reports that a former employee of the association disclosed that his job had been to monitor Love’s activities every day. 

Ruskin closes his report with a series of policy recommendations that could help discourage and criminalize corporate espionage of citizen action.  First, Congress should hold hearings to investigate what is going on.  Particular attention should be paid to federal intelligence and law enforcement officers who “moonlight” as corporate intelligence consultants.  A new Citizen-Group Espionage Act that criminalizes the theft of confidential, noneconomic information held by nonprofits could be useful.  The Justice Department should prepare an annual report about corporate espionage of nonprofits, and prohibit any federal contractors from engaging in such activity.

I find it somewhat amazing that large, reputable corporations and trade associations would try to protect their brands using tactics which, if ever exposed, would have equally devastating effects on their brands.  Or maybe they are just cynically counting on a level of public cynicism that renders us incapable of outrage.  Ruskin's report is a reminder of the grim, amoral political realities that citizens could well encounter in resisting corporate enclosures.