In 2004, Air Canada sued WestJet, alleging corporate espionage. But how could they prove that? Quite easily, as it turns out, because Air Canada had paid private detectives to repeatedly steal the garbage of WestJet co-founder Mark Hill. (There are apparently two of them in Canada.) Hill even photographed one group of detectives who screeched up to his home in Victoria, emptied his trash cans into their pickup truck, and peeled out again, ignoring his shouts of "Do you work for Air Canada?" That might seem like a weird question, given that the alternative was a roving gang of garbage perverts, but this was one of few situations in which the latter would actually be preferable.
The stolen trash included shredded documents, which the investigators painstakingly pieced back together to reveal Air Canada's secret flight load data. They got another break when Hill took an Air Canada flight to Florida. The airline moved his girlfriend to a different seat, and sat a private eye in fake glasses and a goatee next to him instead so he could sneak peeks at confidential information on Hill's computer. Meanwhile, Hill had started loading his trash cans with fake shredded documents which, when pieced together, revealed his plans to "take digital photos of the two morons digging thru my garbage looking for propriety [sic] WestJet information."
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesUnfortunately, lawyers stepped in before this could culminate in the Wile E. Coyote “runway painted on a wall” finale this was obviously leading to.
This all led to an amazing lawsuit wherein Air Canada and WestJet both accused each other of corporate espionage. Neither company denied the allegations, but insisted that they hadn't broken the law. Air Canada said Hill's garbage was over his property line and therefore fair game, while WestJet said the information they got through the website was useless and therefore Air Canada had suffered no damage.
The two sides settled in 2006, with WestJet agreeing to pay a small sum ($15 million) in compensation, probably because they realized "We logged in 243,630 times for something meaningless" wasn't going to fly. It also didn't help that Hill used to send an Air Canada executive taunting emails like, "I'd be willing to bet my next profit-share cheque that YWG-YXU has the lowest load factor of any domestic route operated by AC today." That sounds like gibberish, but take our word that it's a freaking devastating burn in the airline management community.
Ringling Bros. Had A Secret Spy Agency
In 1990, disgraced former CIA deputy director Clair George was hired by the legendary Ringling Bros. Circus. No, he didn't start a new life as a geek -- he was initially hired to help persuade the Chinese to sell them a panda, but Ringling was feeling the heat from animal rights groups, and owner Ken Feld soon asked George to help them set up an in-house spy agency to undermine the circus' enemies. For the next 10 years, the circus ran a secret operation using Watergate-style dirty tricks to destroy anyone who threatened the business.
Theo Wargo/Getty ImagesThe clothes might have been a bit conspicuous for spy work, but the hired muscle was second to none.
A journalist named Jan Pottker was working on an unflattering book about the Feld family, so Ringling bugged her house and phones, monitored her friends, and tailed her in an attempt to dig up dirt. When that didn't work, they set up a fake literary agency and commissioned her to write a book on the Mars family -- all while discouraging her from pursuing the circus story. When the Mars book was published, Ringling deliberately engineered a copyright dispute with a photographer to get it pulled off the shelves. They then delayed her next book for years. Pottker had no idea why things kept going wrong for her until the story finally broke and she realized her colleague of eight years was a secret circus spy. Don't you hate it when that happens?
Ringling also sent a pair of spies to infiltrate the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). The duo rose to a high rank in the organization, all while reporting everything back to the circus. They bugged other PAWS officials, and even broke into their houses to photograph them. Other spies joined PETA, where they tried to incite illegal acts, presumably before learning that PETA requires little incitement. The spy unit also bugged and harassed employees who had filed for workman's comp, and covered up a TB outbreak among Ringling's elephants.
Michael Loccisano/Getty ImagesDon’t act like you didn’t see “elephant-related cover-up” coming.
It only fell apart when a circus executive decided to bug his girlfriend. One day, he ordered his assistant to collect all the illegal tapes, as well as to pick up a jeep from the girlfriend's house. The assistant became confused, and delivered the tapes to the girlfriend (and then collected all the jeeps?). The woman called the police, and that's what led to the investigation that revealed the spycraft. Ringling Bros. settled all cases out of court before going out of business in 2017. The PAWS settlement involved handing over several elephants, just to bring everything full circle.
You can do better than those apple-poisoners -- brew your own cider.
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