Corporate Espionage … Against Environmentalists

Spy Without Consequences

Corporations Have Been Spying on Environmental Advocacy Groups for Decades, and Rarely Face Any Consequences

By Nayantara Bhushan, Staff Contributor

In 2008, Mother Jones published an article titled Black Ops, Green Groups revealing that major corporations had been spying on Greenpeace and other environmental groups for over a decade. From dumpster diving, to computer hacking, to undercover infiltration of a local chapter’s governing board, a private security company called Becket Brown International (BBI) had been stealing confidential information and selling it to corporations embroiled in environmental controversies. The revelations prompted the U.S. Greenpeace office to file a civil suit against BBI, bringing state claims of trespass, invasions of privacy, and misappropriation of trade secrets, as well as a federal RICO claim. No criminal charges were ever brought, though the evidence showed BBI had likely violated criminal laws.

A recent report published by the Center for Corporate Policy (CCP) found that corporate spying on environmental advocacy groups has only been expanding since the Mother Jones investigation. Entitled Spooky Business: Corporate Espionage against Nonprofit Organizations, the report documents all the known instances of corporate spying against environmental nonprofits. Much of the narratives are the same: a corporation, like Shell or BP, hires a private security group, usually made up of former FBI, CIA, or Secret Service agents, to gather confidential information on an advocacy group’s internal operations.

“When corporations are allowed to spy on environmental activists with impunity, vital debate over environmental issues is stifled …”

The report notes that despite the prevalent use of illegal and unethical tactics, corporations rarely face any consequences for their spying. Civil cases are either dismissed for failure to state a claim or, if successful in the lower courts, overruled on appeal. This is due in large part to the fact that private law is an inadequate remedy for the problems created by corporate spying. When courts are only willing to recognize economic harm as an injury, nonprofits have a hard time showing that they have been injured by corporate spying. Additionally, nonprofit groups have a hard time fitting their grievances into most private claims, because private law usually protects individuals’ rights. And governments are not prosecuting the corporations for spying. As a result, corporations have not been deterred from continuing their spying programs.

And that’s a problem. When corporations are allowed to spy on environmental activists with impunity, vital debate over environmental issues is stifled, while corporations are allowed to profit from violating the law. The CCP report proposes a number of solutions to the problem; for example, that Congress should hold hearings on the issue and that the United States should pass a federal statute criminalizing corporate spying on advocacy groups. All the proposed solutions involve government action of some sort, which makes sense. Corporate self-regulation has clearly failed.