Their Information-Gathering and Ours

April 14th, 2008 by Phil Mattera

The activist world is abuzz over two new articles about corporate spying on environmental and labor groups.

James Ridgeway has published an exposé in Mother Jones on a private security company called Beckett Brown International (later S2i). According to documents obtained by Ridgeway, the firm, organized and managed by former Secret Service officers, spied on Greenpeace and other environmental groups in the late 1990s. Its activities are said to have included “pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings.” Because the papers seen by Ridgeway are not complete, it cannot be said exactly which groups were spied on for whom. The firm’s clients are known to have included corporations such as Allied Waste, Halliburton, Monsanto and Wal-Mart.

The other article was written by Amy Bennett Williams for the Fort Myers (Florida) News-Press. It reports on an attempted infiltration of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers farmworker advocacy group by the owner of a private surveillance company. The Coalition suspects that the company may have been hired by Burger King, which is the current target of a campaign to raise pay for tomato pickers. The article notes that a person using an e-mail address traced to Burger King’s corporate headquarters made disparaging online comments about the Coalition.

Reports such as these are certainly a matter of concern, but it is important to distinguish between unlawful corporate espionage and legitimate information-gathering of the type that campaigners themselves do against companies all the time.

For example, in speaking about his article on Democracy Now this morning, Ridgeway mentioned that among the Beckett Brown documents he obtained was a background report on David Fenton, who runs the largest public-interest p.r. firm in the country. Ridgeway mentioned that the file included license plate numbers and property tax records.

As a corporate researcher (and licensed private investigator) for unions, environmental organizations and other activist groups, I find nothing scandalous about the presence of that kind of information, which is part of the public record (though there are often restrictions on who can access license plate numbers). The same goes for divorce, bankruptcy and other court records; criminal records and driving violations; tax liens; state corporate filings; campaign contributions; and voting records (indicating whether someone voted, not who they voted for). I’m also not scandalized by dumpster diving, assuming that it was done in a jurisdiction where it is not illegal (laws vary).

Let’s not be disingenuous. Campaigners use all legal means at our disposal to find possibly incriminating information about corporations and their executives. We should accept that they are doing the same about us.

The difference, of course, is that corporations and their agents sometimes cross the line. As the Ridgeway and Williams articles suggest, companies may use operatives who engage in burglary, infiltration, pretexting (misrepresenting oneself to obtain financial and telephone records) and other illegal or improper tactics. By all means, let’s condemn those practices, while being careful not to preclude those information-gathering techniques we need for our nobler purposes.

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