Civil Liberties  
comments_image Comments

How Corporate Spooks Spy on Nonprofit Activist Groups

Shining light on the murky world of private espionage.

In 2010, a group of hackers known as LulzSec gave us a peek into the shadowy world of corporate espionage. The group released 175,000 emails it obtained from a private security firm called HBGary Federal.

The hack revealed, among other things, that Bank of America (BofA) had grown concerned about a promise that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange made in 2009 to release a trove of sensitive documents that Assange claimed could “take down” the bank. BofA went into crisis-control mode, setting up a “war room” to handle the fallout from the expected release (which, as it turned out, never came).

It also approached the Justice Department, which referred the mega-bank to a K-Street lobbying firm, which introduced BofA executives to a group of private security firms called Team Themis.

Peter Ludlow, a professor at Northwestern University,  wrote in  The New York Times that the group offered, among other services, a “common aspect of intelligence work: deception. That is, it is involved not just with the concealment of reality, but with the manufacture of it.”

Team Themis (a group that included HBGary and the private intelligence and security firms Palantir Technologies, Berico Technologies and Endgame Systems) was effectively brought in to find a way to undermine the credibility of WikiLeaks and the journalist Glenn Greenwald… because of Greenwald’s support for WikiLeaks.

Team Themis considered falsifying documents and feeding them to Greenwald in order to discredit his reporting. They also pitched the Chamber of Commerce with a plan to infiltrate Chamber Watch, a progressive group that opposes the CoC’s anti-regulatory agenda. They suggested creating “two fake insider personas, using one as leverage to discredit the other while confirming the legitimacy of the second.”

When the story broke, Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce rushed to distance themselves from the plans and HBGary claimed that they had never gotten past the planning stage. But the leaked emails briefly shined a light on the murky, largely unregulated world of corporate spying – an industry that watchdogs say has grown exponentially since the 9/11 attacks.

Last week, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Corporate Policy Center issued a report titled, “ Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage Against Nonprofit Organizations,” which detailed a number of revelations of corporate espionage operations against non-profit activist groups.  Moyers & Companyspoke to the report’s author, Corporate Policy Center Director Gary Ruskin, last week. 

Joshua Holland: Over the past few years, a few cases of corporate espionage against various activist groups have come to light, but your report is the first to attempt to document this phenomenon in detail. Do we know how widespread this practice is?

Gary Ruskin: We really do not. Our report, “Spooky Business,” is really an effort to say something that we really know very little about. It’s kind of like documenting the tip of the iceberg, but we don’t know how deep the iceberg goes. So it’s going to require a lot more journalistic work, as well as some investigations by the Department of Justice and other law enforcement officials.

Holland: Let’s look at an example of the kinds of stories that have come to light and then we can discuss the ramifications. What is S2i, the company formerly known BBI?

Ruskin: Those two companies are basically private investigation firms and they were very active in surveilling and conducting espionage against a wide variety of nonprofit organizations.

Holland: What kind of specific activities did you find these private ‘spooks,’ if you will, doing to disrupt activist groups — or is disrupt even the right word?

See more stories tagged with: