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New Cases of Corporate Spying Bolster Troubling Trend: What Is Being Done About It?

Corporations and private intelligance firms are spying on whistleblowers, activists and journalists, but is anything being done to hold them to account?

A sign displayed during a rally against mass surveillance organized by the group Stop Watching Us in Washington, D.C., on October 26, 2013.

In the past few weeks, an alarming number of national and international cases of corporate spying have emerged revealing a clear pattern of abuse with no clear end in sight.

The trend has grown in tandem with damning revelations about governmental surveillance capabilities and practices by the English-speaking “five eyes” alliance revealed by former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden. But cases of corporate espionage are tricky to pin down and often overlap with governmental spying since private intelligence firms contract with government agencies.

“There has been a dramatic increase in the supply of espionage capacity and the specification of it, and so what that means is that it’s much easier to hire espionage capacity, whether … it’s human or technological, and that capacity is much more effective and intrusive than it was 10 years ago or 15 years ago, so that’s one thing that’s happening,” says Gary Ruskin, director at the Center for Corporate Policy.

Ruskin authored a detailed report called “Spooky Business” for the Center, which is one of the first to comprehensively document a number of cases of corporate espionage operations against nonprofit groups and activists.

“The other thing that’s happening is that the corporations are increasingly concerned about the potential impact of activists, nonprofit organizations and truth tellers … number one on their bottom lines but number two — and perhaps more importantly — on their most important asset, which is typically their brand reputation,” he said.

In his report, Ruskin documented in detail a 2011 joint surveillance operation conducted in secret by three private firms, HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies against the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s nonprofit critics. The three firms called themselves “Team Themis,” and worked together to gather information on organizations such as the Center for American Progress, Move On, Move to Amend, U.S. Chamber Watch, The Brad Blog, Brave New Films and the Ruckus Society, among others.

The firms proposed hiring former intelligence veterans and using extreme — and potentially illegal — tactics, such as creating false documents and false personas to discredit activists who may engage with them.

The tactics were worryingly similar to the “dirty trick” tactics currently being employed by Government Communications Headquarters’ Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group unit to discredit online “hacktivists,” revealed by Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept last week.

But a new rash of reports documenting corporate espionage cases has steadily trickled out of the media in 2014, expanding on the known cases of private organizations gathering information on dissenters and using it to publicly shame them or permanently damage their reputations, with no accountability.

International human rights organizations in South America recently discovered their meetings were being infiltrated by the Vale and Belo Monte companies, according to Latinamerica Press. Organizers with the Xingu Alive Forever Movement in Brazil’s northeastern state of Para determined that a new member who called himself “Antônio” was recording a meeting attended by groups like Amazon Watch, Global Justice and Brazil’s Socio-environmental Institute. The groups are working to pressure the Belo Monte Construction Consortium to obey the law and respect human rights of the communities affected by the Belo Monte Dam.

“Antônio” told organizers that the Consortium hired him to spy on their movement. He passed along photos and inside intelligence about the groups’ members and meetings with a Consortium employee.

More has also come out this month, in files published by WikiLeaks, that the Austin-based private intelligence firm Stratfor, in 2010, was paid more than $13,000 a month by the American Petroleum Institute to gather information about environmental activist organizations and campaigns around energy and climate change.

The firm tracked groups including the National Resource Defense Council, Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity, Oil Change International,, the Center for American Progress, Clean Energy Works, the Sierra Club, Forest Ethics, the Union of Concerned Scientists and ProPublica on behalf of the Petroleum Institute.

Moreover, in a case with roots in both the U.S. and the U.K., the FBI will be asked to investigate eight American companies that allegedly hired U.K.-based private investigators and illegally gathered information about the public in the so-called “blue-chip hacking scandal.” The scandal erupted after it was discovered that several U.S. companies used rogue private investigators who helped the companies fuel unlawful trade in personal data. The British Information Commissioner announced he plans to contact U.S. authorities.

But in one of the most compelling stories of the month, the New Yorker revealed that Syngenta, the company that manufactures the herbicide atrazine, relentlessly followed Berkeley scientist Tyrone Hayes, whose experiments have repeatedly shown that atrazine causes birth defects in frogs. The company used its vast public relations apparatus to plot ways to discredit Hayes’s work and reputation.

Syngenta’s public relations team even proposed investigating Hayes’s wife and purchasing “Tyrone Hayes” as a phrase on search engines, so that when someone searches for Hayes’s studies, the first thing they will see is Syngenta public relations material. The company also prevented Hayes from acquiring a job at Duke University in North Carolina, where Syngenta’s crop-protection headquarters is located. Syngenta sent representatives to his public speeches to poke holes in his methods. Hayes is still seeking justice, however, as no action has been taken against the company.

“The manufacturer should be held accountable for how they manipulated the [Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)], for how they manipulated the legislature, how they manipulated scientists,” Hayes told Truthout. “They essentially made it very difficult … for me to get funding and continue the research.”

But he also thinks the EPA should be held accountable for knowingly allowing Syngenta employees to influence their panel decisions approving the use of atrazine. “The EPA directly collaborated with the manufacturer while the testing was being done,” he said.

Foreign governments are also purchasing commercial spyware from companies like the Hacking Team, and others whose “products are capable of stealing documents from hard drives, snooping on video chats, reading emails, snatching contact lists and remotely flipping on cameras and microphones so that they can quietly spy on a computer’s unwitting user,” according to a report in The Washington Post. The targets of the spyware have been U.S. citizens and journalists.

“It’s quite hard to talk about these things when all we really know about these items is one little news clip,” Ruskin said. “Corporations engage in espionage of nonprofits, activists and other truth tellers, and scientists, with near impunity, can suffer nothing more than a minor adversity in the coverage of their espionage being exposed … is that all?”

While the FBI clearly makes investigating whether foreign governments are spying on corporations to obtain trade secrets a priority, it is not entirely clear whether the agency is doing much to hold corporations who spy on nonprofits and the public accountable.

FBI supervisory special agent Jonathan Zeitlin told Truthout that many corporate spying cases sound more “like tortious conduct, not federal criminal conduct,” and did not disclose whether the agency was looking into any kinds of cases in which private organizations and corporations spied on advocacy groups and activists.

But a secretive partnership between the FBI and the private sector, called InfraGard, designed to share intelligence, is, or could become, another avenue through which unethical or potentially illegal espionage against advocacy groups is conducted, according to Ruskin’s report.

In any case, it’s clear the FBI prioritizes cases in which corporations are spied on rather than cases of corporations unethically spying.

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