Aired on KERA-FM (NPR), Dallas, Texas on Oct., 6, 2006
The Hewlett Packard story may sound truly weird, with tentacles reaching from Silicon Valley to Omaha, Boston and Florida, but I heard a journalist, formerly with Time Magazine, now in the spy business himself, say that it’s much more than corporate shenanigans at a company already notorious for dumping the controversial CEO, Carly Fiorina. While it may seem exotic to sic private detectives on board members and journalists as well as employees, all in a mad effort to shut off the spigot of leaking information, this is far from a funny spectacle of another high-tech company making a sap of itself. It’s a revelation of the current way of the world, and more disturbing than many of us might have realized.
Patricia Dunn, once of Barclay’s Global Investors and conclusive proof that expertise in one area does not necessarily equip a leader to run another, has resigned not only as chairwoman of Hewlett Packard but from the board as well. Mark Hurd, CEO since the abrupt departure of Carly Fiorina, will take over as chair and, like a cat on a hot tin roof, will strive to stay on, as long as he can, hoping that California and federal investigators don’t link him any closer to the sting operation than he already is.
The point the journalist I mentioned was making is this: George W. Bush’s surveillance efforts are nothing compared to the corporate espionage that’s engulfing the country. For $15,000, he said, he can find anybody’s bank records. And he is retained regularly to do just that. His work is not all electronic. Sometimes he poses as a garbage collector in a van to pick up and examine the trash of a target. Phone records he finds by searching out a handy human source with access to them. Whether he uses pretexting, as Hewlett Packard’s hired guns did, he didn’t say, but I rather doubt it since he’s just left a firm of retired CIA agents because he didn’t like their ethics. Pretexting means posing as the person whose records you want to pilfer.
This one-time journalist added that if you want to bring somebody down, it’s easy: Just insert some child pornography into his computer. It’s equally possible, he said, to plug in terrorist material.
All this is true, agreed a Dallas observer who’s close to the world of corporate intelligence. Foreign governments and companies, especially the Chinese, he said, are extremely sophisticated and aggressive in gathering information on business colleagues or rivals. And from what I hear, American executives are the same, especially in seeking accurate resumes of foreign nationals they want to hire or fund managers with whom they might invest.
It’s clear that new laws won’t be enough to corral a situation that is totally out of control. To fight abuse in the market will require a market solution. What is needed is experts geared up to go into a company, assess its vulnerabilities, find out who’s going after that company and how, discover the scam and stop it. This would be a useful, profitable business for people skilled and honest enough to take it on.
Louise Cowan, former professor at the University of Dallas, once said, “There is no privacy in community.” Everybody knows everything about you. So it’s pointless to try to hide or pretend. People in small towns trade one thing of value to get the comfort of another. Today there is neither community nor privacy. There is only a world of strangers scrambling to get the goods on each other. If ever there were a need for a countervailing force in business, it’s now.