FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Corporations Spy on Nonprofits with Impunity

Here’s a dirty little secret you won’t see in the daily papers: corporations conduct espionage against US nonprofit organizations without fear of being brought to justice.

Yes, that means using a great array of spycraft and snoopery, including planned electronic surveillance, wiretapping, information warfare, infiltration, dumpster diving and so much more.

The evidence abounds.

For example, six years ago, based on extensive documentary evidence, James Ridgeway reported in Mother Jones on a major corporate espionage scheme by Dow Chemical focused on Greenpeace and other environmental and food activists.

Greenpeace was running a potent campaign against Dow’s use of chlorine to manufacture paper and plastics. Dow grew worried and eventually desperate.

Ridgeway’s article and subsequent revelations produced jaw-dropping information about how Dow’s private investigators, from the firm Beckett Brown International (BBI), hired:

• An off duty DC police officer who gained access to Greenpeace trash dumpsters at least 55 times;

• a company called NetSafe Inc., staffed by former National Security Agency (NSA) employees expert in computer intrusion and electronic surveillance; and,

• a company called TriWest Investigations, which obtained phone records of Greenpeace employees or contractors. BBI’s notes to its clients contain verbatim quotes that they attribute to specific Greenpeace employees.

Using this information, Greenpeace filed a lawsuit against Dow Chemical, Dow’s PR firms Ketchum and Dezenhall Resources, and others, alleging trespass on Greenpeace’s property, invasion of privacy by intrusion, and theft of confidential documents.

Yesterday, the D.C. Court of Appeals dismissed Greenpeace’s lawsuit. In her decision, Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby notes that “However Greenpeace’s factual allegations may be regarded,” its “legal arguments cannot prevail as a matter of law” because “the common law torts alleged by Greenpeace are simply ill-suited as potential remedies.” At this time Greenpeace has not decided whether to appeal.

The Court’s opinion focused on technicalities, like who owned the trash containers in the office building where Greenpeace has its headquarters and whether the claim of intrusion triggers a one year or three year statute of limitations. But, whether or not the Court’s legal analyses hold water, the outcome – no legal remedies for grave abuses – is lamentable.

Greenpeace’s lawsuit “will endure in the historical record to educate the public about the extent to which big business will go to stifle First Amendment protected activities,” wrote lawyer Heidi Boghosian, author of Spying on Democracy. “It is crucially important that organizations and individuals continue to challenge such practices in court while also bringing notice of them to the media and to the public at large.”

This is hardly the only case of corporate espionage against nonprofits. Last year, my colleagues produced a report titled Spooky Business, which documented 27 sets of stories involving corporate espionage against nonprofits, activists and whistleblowers. Most of the stories occurred in the US, but some occurred in the UK, France and Ecuador. None of the US-based cases has resulted in a verdict or settlement or even any meaningful public accountability. In contrast, in France there was a judgment against Electricite de France for spying on Greenpeace, and in the UK there is an ongoing effort regarding News Corp/News of the World and phone hacking.

Spooky Business found that “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.”

Three examples:

• In 2011, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, its law firm Hunton & Williams, and technology and intelligence firms such as Palantir and Berico were exposed in an apparent scheme to conduct espionage against the Chamber’s nonprofit and unioncritics.
• Burger King was caught conducting espionage against nonprofits and activists trying to help low-wage tomato pickers in Florida.
• The Wall Street Journal reported on Walmart’s surveillance tactics against anti-Walmart groups, including the use of eavesdropping via wireless microphones.

Here’s why you should care.

This is a serious matter of civil liberties.

The citizen’s right to privacy and free speech should not be violated by personal spying merely because a citizen disagrees with the actions or ideas of a giant multinational corporation.

Our democracy can’t function properly if corporations may spy and snoop on nonprofits with impunity. This espionage is a despicable means of degrading the effectiveness of nonprofit watchdogs and activists. Many of the espionage tactics employed appear illegal and are certainly immoral.

Powerful corporations spy on each other as well, sometimes with the help of former NSA and FBI employees.

How much? We’ll never begin to know the extent of corporate espionage without an investigation by Congress and/or the Department of Justice.

While there is a congressional effort to hold the NSA accountable for its privacy invasions, there is no such effort to hold powerful corporations accountable for theirs.
Nearly 50 years ago, when General Motors hired private investigators to spy on me, it was held to account by the U.S. Senate. GM President James Roche was publicly humiliated by having to apologize to me at a Senate hearing chaired by Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT). It was a memorable, but rare act of public shaming on Capitol Hill. GM also paid substantially to settle my suit for compensation in a court of law (Nader v. General Motors Corp., 307 N.Y.S.2d 647).

A public apology and monetary settlement would have been a fair outcome in the Greenpeace case too.

But in the intervening half-century our Congress has been overwhelmed by lethargy and corporate lobbyists. Today, Congress is more lapdog than watchdog.

Think of the Greenpeace case from the perspective of executives at Fortune 500 companies.

They know that Dow Chemical was not punished for its espionage against Greenpeace, nor were other US corporations held to account in similar cases.

In the future, three words may well spring to their minds when contemplating whether to go after nonprofits with espionage: Go for it. Unless the buying public votes with its pocketbook to diminish the sales of these offending companies.

Ralph Nader’s latest book is: Unstoppable: the Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State.

More articles by:

Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

Weekend Edition
April 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What Will It Take For Trump to Get His Due?
Roy Eidelson
Is the American Psychological Association Addicted to Militarism and War?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Time is Blind, Man is Stupid
Joshua Frank
Top 20 Mueller Report “Findings”
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Will Never Go Away
Paul Street
Stephen Moore Gets Something Right: It’s Capitalism vs. Democracy
Russell Mokhiber
Why Boeing and Its Executives Should be Prosecuted for Manslaughter
T.J. Coles
The Battle for Latin America: How the U.S. Helped Destroy the “Pink Tide”
Ron Jacobs
Ho Chi Minh City: Nguyen Thai Binh Street
Dean Baker
Fun Fictions in Economics
David Rosen
Trump’s One-Dimensional Gender Identity
Kenn Orphan
Notre Dame: We Have Always Belonged to Her
Robert Hunziker
The Blue Ocean Event and Collapsing Ecosystems
Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr.
Paddy Wagon
Brett Wilkins
Jimmy Carter: US ‘Most Warlike Nation in History of the World’
Nick Pemberton
To Never Forget or Never Remember
Stephen Cooper
My Unforgettable College Stabbings
Louis Proyect
A Leftist Rejoinder to the “Capitalist Miracle”
Louisa Willcox
Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic and the Need for a New Approach to Managing Wildlife
Brian Cloughley
Britain Shakes a Futile Fist and Germany Behaves Sensibly
Jessicah Pierre
A Revolutionary Idea to Close the Racial Wealth Divide
George Burchett
Revolutionary Journalism
Dan Bacher
U.S. Senate Confirms Oil Lobbyist David Bernhardt as Interior Secretary
Nicky Reid
The Strange Success of Russiagate
Chris Gilbert
Defending Venezuela: Two Approaches
Todd Larsen
The Planetary Cost of Amazon’s Convenience
Kelly Martin
How the White House is Spinning Earth Day
Nino Pagliccia
Cuba and Venezuela: Killing Two Birds With a Stone
Matthew Stevenson
Pacific Odyssey: Guadalcanal and Bloody Ridge, Solomon Islands
David Kattenburg
Trudeau’s Long Winter
Gary Olson
A Few Comments on the recent PBS Series: Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
Ellen Lindeen
What Does it Mean to Teach Peace?
Adewale Maye and Eileen Appelbaum
Paid Family and Medical Leave: a Bargain Even Low-Wage Workers Can Afford
Ramzy Baroud
War Versus Peace: Israel Has Decided and So Should We
Ann Garrison
Vets for Peace to Barbara Lee: Support Manning and Assange
Thomas Knapp
The Mueller Report Changed my Mind on Term Limits
Jill Richardson
Why is Going Green So Hard? Because the System Isn’t
Mallika Khanna
The Greenwashing of Earth Day
Arshad Khan
Do the Harmless Pangolins Have to Become Extinct?
Paul Armentano
Pushing Marijuana Legalization Across the Finish Line
B. R. Gowani
Surreal Realities: Pelosi, Maneka Gandhi, Pompeo, Trump
Paul Buhle
Using the Law to Build a Socialist Society
April 18, 2019
Gerald Sussman
Russiagate is Dead! Long Live Russiagate!
Lance Olsen
Perverse Housing Policy Perverts Forest Policy
Richard Ward
All Will be Punished
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail