“Burger With a Side of Spies”

by Will Potter on May 8, 2008

in Surveillance

New York Times Schlosser OpedEric Schlosser has a great oped in The New York Times about how Burger King hired a sketchy private security firm to spy on non-violent activists.

WHILE the Patriot Act has raised fears about government spying on ordinary citizens, the growing threat to civil liberties posed by corporate spying has received much less attention. During the late 1990s, a private security firm spied on Greenpeace and other environmental groups, examining activists’ phone records and even sending undercover agents to infiltrate the groups, according to an article in Mother Jones. In 2006 Hewlett-Packard was caught spying on journalists. Last year Wal-Mart apologized for improperly recording conversations with a New York Times reporter.

And now it turns out that the Burger King Corporation, home of the Whopper, hired a private security firm to spy on the Student/Farmworker Alliance, a group of idealistic college students trying to improve the lives of migrants in Florida.

There are some striking similarities between the FBI’s use of “Anna” to infiltrate and influence environmental activists, and Burger King’s use of spies to infiltrate activist groups. Perhaps the most important difference, though, is that I would argue corporate-sponsored surveillance has even fewer oversights than government-sponsored surveillance (which, as Schlosser notes, has already been expanded considerably).

What’s also striking is the rhetoric being used against mainstream groups like the Student/Farmworker Alliance. Burger King told Schlosser that it had used undercover investigative firms “in order to prevent acts of violence.” Of course, there’s absolutely no indication that any acts of violence were likely, but to the FBI–and now, corporations–the specter of violence and terrorism is enough to justify any civil liberties violation. (Sound familiar?)

One of the most chilling lines in Schlosser’s piece, and I encourage you to read the entire thing, is this quote from a PR flak, defending Burger King’s actions. It sounds like some kind of nationalistic defend-the-homeland rhetoric, until you realize it’s about Burger King:

“It is both the corporation’s right and duty,” a company spokesman later wrote in an e-mail message to me, “to protect its employees and assets from potential harm.”

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