National Press Club

Nader Group Releases Report on Corporate Espionage

November 21, 2013 | By Lorna Aldrich |

Essential Information released a report at a Nov. 20 National Press Club Newsmaker event on what it called corporate and trade associations' undercover activity against nonprofit organizations.

The report, "Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations," was authored by Gary Ruskin, Director of the Center for Corporate Policy, a project of Essential Information, a group formed by activist Ralph Nader in 1982. Ruskin said "Corporate espionage against nonprofit organizations presents a threat to democracy and to individual privacy."

The report lists major corporations and trade associations that it says "have been linked to espionage or planned espionage against nonprofit organization activists and whistle blowers." The list includes 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 German energy provider E.ON.

Ruskin said the most common undercover technique is for an employee or contractor to pose as a volunteer or journalist to gather information. Other methods include tapping phones, hacking phone voice mails, and a variety of computer hacking techniques, according to Ruskin.

"Corporations engage in espionage against nonprofits with near impunity," Ruskin said, suffering only minor adverse media coverage if they are exposed.

The most common technique for obtaining physical information is Dumpster diving, he said.

He and Charlie Cray, senior researcher at Greenpeace, described a specific instance of a moonlighting Washington, D.C., policeman taking material from a Dumpster inside a building rented by Greenpeace.

A few of the charges made by Cray and Ruskin arose from documents put in the public domain by WikiLeaks.

Both deplored what they said is the use of former Secret Service, CIA, military and police officers by contractors and corporations to gather intelligence on nonprofits and whistleblowers.

The report says Greenpeace filed a lawsuit complaining that between 1998 and 2000 Dow Chemical and its contractors conducted illegal Dumpster diving and other espionage activities against Greenpeace, which were discovered in 2008. The case is currently under appeal.

Audience members asked where the speakers would draw the line between legitimate public relations activities and unethical or illegal activities. Ruskin and Gray advocate Congressional action to specify the lines, which they said are currently a gray area.

Mark Floegel of Greenpeace advocated making Dumpster diving for commercial purposes illegal but not for public interest purposes