The difference between the CIA and ethical intelligence gathering

It has been a while since I read an article as stunning as this one – ‘James Bond’ Tactics Help Companies Spy on Each Other. The article is about a former CIA agent who is now some sort of private investigator who gathers intelligence on companies for his customers – mostly a direct competitor to the company he spies on. The nature of his way of working is so strikingly blunt and inappopriate that I’m not even sure whether this article should amuse me or have me deeply worried. I’ll try to explain in below post what exactly it is that startled me and then I’d encourage you to comment on how you feel about this.

Before I start, I’d like to point out that my co-writer Anne wrote two articles about Competitive Intelligence in relation to ethics (Misrepresentation in CI: An Ethical Analysis and Are you gathering competitive intelligence ethically?). Of course if you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read those, but I’ll try to summarize some findings, which will help you understand why the central article in this post amazes me. According to Anne, one of the most discussed topics about ethics in Competitive Intelligence is ‘misrepresentation’: “Misrepresentation occurs whenever a CI practitioner lies or misleads a competitor about their identity in order to gain access to information.”. Anne believes that misrepresentation is unethical but in some cases relatively innocent and pretty much harmless. SCIP, the Society of CI Professionals, clearly states in it’s Code of ethics for CI professionals that misrepresentation is never ethical, based on this prerequisite: “To accurately disclose all relevant information, including one’s identity and organization, prior to all interviews.”.

The article
So with this in mind, let’s have a look at James Bond and his code of ethics. The article is about former CIA agent Rustmann. Apparently he stopped working for the CIA in 1990 and from that point on he was approached by many companies to work for them. His skills in ‘psychological analysis, undercover research and high-tech eavesdropping’ made him a wanted asset for these companies, according to Rustmann. The offers must have been tempting enough for him to sell his soul to the devil.

I do not doubt his expertise in these areas, nor do I question the fact that certain companies would love to use that against their competitors. But the more I read about the way he works, the less comfortable I would feel if I were a company hiring him. Let me summarize some of his techniques:

When one of Rustmann’s clients wants to find out about, say, its competitors’ upcoming product line-ups, it pays him to conduct undercover interviews with unsuspecting employees and dig through their garbage.

“You can find out all kinds of good stuff in the trash,” says Rustmann, founder of CTC International, who spent 24 years in the CIA’s clandestine service breaking into embassies and wiretapping foreign government officials.

Because it’s illegal in the United States to trespass in order to retrieve trash, Rustmann says he often gets cleaning crews to sell him the garbage they collect. While the practice raises eyebrows among some in the rapidly growing “competitive intelligence” industry, Rustmann says he never breaks the law.

About Rustmann’s ‘interview techniques’, the article points out the following:

One of his favorite tactics is calling unsuspecting employees at a target company, indentifying CTC as a “research firm” — which it is — and then asking all kinds of juicy questions. As long as CTC doesn’t lie about its identity and doesn’t ask for trade secrets protected by the Economic Espionage Act of 1996, the practice is perfectly legal.

Anyone who says what he is doing is ‘perfectly legal’ makes me suspect exactly the opposite. Everything this former CIA agent does is unethical and we are not talking the innocent and harmless kind here. His interview techniques display the very definition of misrepresentation. By calling his agency a research firm – which of course is correct, technically speaking – he does not make it any more ethically acceptable. Misrepresentation is about not revealing your true nature, and that is what he does.

Having said that, I also put question marks at the statement that it’s ‘perfectly legal’ to begin with. While lying as such is not illegal, in certain conditions lying can be classified as ‘fraud’, which makes it a whole different story, according to Craig Ehrlich:

If a lie is 1) a misstatement of material fact, 2) known by the speaker to be false and intended to induce the receiver to rely upon it, and 3) was justifiably relied upon and caused the receiver to suffer actual damages, then it meets the legal definition of fraud (Ehrlich, 2006).

I don’t think I need to discuss whether bribing cleaning crews and buying garbage they collect is ethically acceptable. And I don’t think he tells them what he uses it for either.

I think we can conclude here that this way of working is not acceptable in the competitive intelligence field. At least, not to the Guru’s and founders of the profession. Or in fact to anyone who is honourable in doing business. And that is exactly what shocked me most about this article: the fact that there is a market for this. What large company does not have a code of conduct in which they state to never ever do something that is against the law? Most companies also have a similar code of ethics. Apparently that doesn’t stop them and it turns out that Oracle – who’s CEO Larry Ellison admitted in 2000 to have hired private investigators to spy on Microsoft  - was not an exception after all.

Misrepresentation in CI: An Ethical Analysis by Anne van den Brink
Are you gathering competitive intelligence ethically? by Anne van den Brink
James Bond’ Tactics Help Companies Spy on Each Other on ABC News
Code of ethics for CI professionals on SCIP

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