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Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations
“The problem is that you do things in the service of your country that are just not appropriate to do in the private sector.”
- John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency ..
This report is an effort to document something we know little about: corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations. The entire subject is veiled in secrecy. In recent years, there have been few serious journalistic efforts – and no serious government efforts - to come to terms with the reality of corporate spying against nonprofits.
Much of what we do know about this subject has been uncovered by accident. So the picture we have is fragmentary at best: just a few snapshots, taken mostly at random, arising from brilliant strokes of luck, giving a mere inkling of the full range of espionage activity against nonprofits.
There are, however, a few things we can say for certain.
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.
The use of former intelligence, military and law enforcement officers for corporate espionage appears to be commonplace. Especially prevalent is the use of former Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Secret Service agents, as well as current or former police officers, and other former military, intelligence and law enforcement officials. These current and former government employees, and current government contractors, do their spying against nonprofits with little regulation or oversight, and apparently with near impunity.
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 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.
Corporations engage in espionage against nonprofits with near impunity. Typically, they suffer nothing more than minor adverse media coverage if their espionage is exposed. The lack of accountability may encourage other corporations to conduct espionage.
Corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations presents a threat to democracy and to individual privacy. Democracy cannot function without an effective civil society. But civil society and its nonprofit organizations depend crucially on their ability to keep some ideas, information, and conversations private.
Individual citizens and groups do not lose their right to privacy merely because they disagree with the activities or ideas of a corporation. The right to privacy dovetails with our First Amendment rights to speech, public debate, and full participation in the “marketplace of ideas.” It is especially unjust that corporations sabotage Americans’ fundamental rights through actions that are unethical or illegal.
Many things can be done to protect nonprofits from corporate espionage. Congress should investigate and hold hearings on corporate espionage against nonprofits. Congress and state legislatures should enact legislation to criminalize the theft of confidential, noneconomic information held by their critics. Law enforcement – especially the U.S. Department of Justice – should prioritize investigating and prosecuting corporate espionage against nonprofits.
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