Pirates in Suits

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Espionage is a word that brings to mind James Bond movies, or the spy stories of John Le Carre. But in recent years, espionage has also become widely associated with business practice too. Industrial espionage is essentially a form of commercial intelligence gathering, usually, but not exclusively, on the part of industry competitors. With global competition intensifying, finding out about rivals’ products and processes has become big business – and competitive intelligence gathering is increasingly seen as an important and largely acceptable form of market research. Although industry representatives, such as the society for Competitive Intelligence Professionals argue that industrial espionage, or spying, is both unethical and illegal, there is sometimes a fine line between the ‘legitimate’ tactics of competitive intelligence gathering and the ‘illegitimate’ practice of industrial espionage.

Gathering and using information to advantage is the underlying theory of business intelligence systems. These systems attempt to bring to business the information gathering and analyzing methods of government intelligence agencies, much in the same way that military strategic planning tactics shifted into business practice after World War II. As, with government intelligence operations, corporate analysis sometimes borders on the clandestine.

Corporations, no less than countries, have been have been gathering information about one another for ages. Massive amounts of corporate spying are accomplished with increasing ease by every possible way available. This tussle is going on in every arena so as to acquire the maximum benefit available by each and every corporation.

All organizations collect and make use of some kind of information about their competitors and other organizations. Just as a university will typically investigate which courses are offered by other universities, or may ask a new member of staff about comparative practices at their previous employer, so too will companies take a keen interest in the products, policies, and processes undertaken by their rivals. Indeed, such intelligence gathering activities are very much a standard aspect of conventional market research and competitor benchmarking, and make for effective competitive behavior (Shing and Spence 2002). It could be argued, therefore, that any means of gathering information is acceptable in a competitive context. After all, competitors are typically seen as being in an on-going, zero-sum battle with each other for customers, resources, and other rewards. Why should organizations accord their competitors any specific ethical claim when these are the very businesses that they are vying with for such rewards? What rights could, say, Volkswagen possibly have in its competition for car customers with Volvo?

It is a relatively short step from these legal rights to claim that a competitor also has some form of moral claims on an organization that go beyond those codified in law – for example some form of right to privacy, or a right to ‘fair play’. Certainly, it is open to debate whether the mere fact of a competitive situation bestows upon an organization carte blanche to act in whatever way is necessary to beat their competitors, including lying, deception, providing false information about competitors to consumers, poaching staff, and other such questionable practices.

Despite the redundancy of a legalistic definition, it is clear that industry professionals and commentators certainly do ascribe a pejorative meaning to the term ‘industrial espionage’, preferring instead the more neutral competitive or corporate intelligence. Therefore, it would seem to be reasonable to distinguish espionage as intelligence practices of questionable ethics.

Now, talking from the Indian scenario where this corporate espionage is working in the government corridors is a real matter of concern. Such a kind of espionage when backed by corrupt officials and other related people in the field pose a real threat to the purity of the working environment. Since, our country follows the concept and principles of welfare state such kind of malpractices questions the very establishment of such a welfare state where everyone is not given equal opportunity or platform to compete.

At the time of writing this article, 13 persons have been arrested by the Delhi Police in the case of leaking confidential documents of the MoPNG. They include two former multitasking staffers of the MoPNG, Lalta Prasad and Rakesh Kumar; three middlemen, Ishwar Singh, Raj Kumar Chaubey and Asharam; and two energy consultants, Santanu Saikia, a former journalist, who runs a Web portal called IndianPetro.com, and Prayas Jain, CEO of an oil and gas consultancy, Metis India.

Lalta Prasad and Rakesh Kumar are sons of Asharam and were frequent visitors to the Ministry. The police told the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Sanjay Khanagwal, that, Asharam, also an employee in the MoPNG, used to switch off CCTV cameras installed in the Ministry to enable his sons to enter the office using fake entry cards which they had procured for Rs.4,000 each. Five corporate executives—Shailesh Saxena, manager, corporate affairs, Reliance Industries Limited; Subhash Chandra, senior executive, Jubilant Energy; Rishi Anand, deputy general manager, Reliance Power (Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group); Vinay Kumar of Essar; and K.K. Naik, general manager, Cairn India—were also in the net.

On February 11, 2014, the Anti-Corruption Branch (ACB) of the Delhi government, during the 49-day rule of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government led by Arvind Kejriwal, had filed an FIR against former Petroleum Ministers, the late Murli Deora and M. Veerappa Moily, and former Director General of Hydrocarbons V. K. Sibal and RIL Chairman Mukesh Ambani. The FIR alleged collusion between Reliance and the Ministers of the UPA government to allow a doubling of the price of natural gas. The case related to a formula designed by the UPA government, based on international prices, which would have doubled the price of natural gas from $4.2 per million metric British thermal units (mmBTU) to $8.4 per mmBTU. But this did not lead to anyone being booked.

The spate of arrests following the corporate espionage case may suggest that the Central government is after all taking on corruption, and not sparing even employees of big business houses, and its sincerity in doing so must not be doubted. Most observers, however, do not want to read too much into this. In particular, it is pointed out that the government’s stance in the ongoing case between the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and RIL in the Delhi High Court shows that the Modi government, like its predecessor, continues to befriend big business houses.

The investigation into the corporate espionage case has amply demonstrated the extent of penetration of corporate malpractices in institutions of governance. It has brought out into the public domain what was until now in the realm of hearsay and conjecture. However, it is too early to say if this will translate into decisive action against crony capitalism and strike at the roots of power that corporates wield over decisions concerning the larger public interest, such as pricing and allocation of natural resources. The hold of corporates on the political class is deeply entrenched. The leakage of confidential documents from a Ministry is just the tip of the iceberg.

Such, cases of corporate espionage are a matter of concern we live in a democratic society and to maintain it’s dignity is our duty. Mutual interest are to respected but not at the cost of our own country.

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