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.