How Companies Spy On Employees And Customers Who Criticize Them
If you're the kind of stone-hearted psychopath who can stand to glance at the news these days, you may have seen a story about a bunch of eBay employees harassing a married couple who made the mistake of mildly criticizing the company. We even covered it here on Cracked.com, even though this site is mostly about spackling and drywall repair. But the eBay story is actually just the tip of the iceberg.
To recap: the eBay saga centered on a middle-aged couple from Natick, Massachusetts, who mildly criticized the company in an ecommerce newsletter they ran. This apparently drove eBay's top executives insane with rage. The company's actual CEO began texting orders to "Take her down," presumably while flipping over his desk and hurling a whiskey glass at the wall. Another executive responded "We are going to crush this lady," then probably tore his shirt off, ran screaming into a rainstorm, and tried to fight a tree. From there, eBay's senior director of safety and security got involved. And that's when everything turned into a horror movie.
Apparently, eBay's security team decided to launch a campaign of anonymous harassment against the couple. Their plan was to pretend to be a random eBay seller, enraged by the couple's criticism of the company, who would set out to ruin their lives. Once the couple had been pushed to breaking point, eBay security would get in touch and offer to help track down the mysterious troll. The couple would be so grateful, they would never criticize eBay again. They called it the "white knight" strategy, because everyone involved spent far too much time on the Internet circa 2008.
Over the next two weeks, eBay employees mailed the couple live spiders, a funeral wreath, books on surviving the death of a loved one, fly larvae, cockroaches, and a bloody pig mask. They tried to send an actual fetal pig, but the company called the couple to confirm (please pause to have sympathy for the fetal pig company, who are apparently fully used to being a harassment tool for internet trolls). The team also planned to send rats, chainsaws, and human shit, presumably sourced from a very confused eBay intern.
Ebay employees also used Craigslist to advertise sex parties at the couple's address, encouraging swingers to "ring the doorbell anytime of day or night." An anonymous Twitter account was set up to send threatening messages, while pornography addressed to the couple was "accidentally" delivered to their neighbors. Ebay staff tailed the couple around town, sent plumbers to their house in the middle of the night, and tried to install a GPS tracker on their car. Fortunately, they failed to cover their tracks and six eBay employees were recently arrested, including the security director who oversaw the operation. The CEO at the time has not been charged with anything, but was pushed out of the company with a mere $57 million golden parachute.
Ebay's case was extreme, but big corporations actually have a long history of trying to silence critics, by any means necessary. Tesla is currently accused of harassing an employee named Martin Tripp, who made the mistake of speaking to reporters about problems at Tesla's factory in Nevada. According to a whistleblower, Tesla security contractors hacked into Tripp's phone, followed him, and ultimately passed local police a false tip saying he was planning a mass shooting at the Tesla factory. Tripp eventually had to move to Hungary "out of fears for his family's safety."
Another whistleblower said that Tesla had specifically hired former Uber employees like Nick Gicinto to monitor critics and employees. While at Uber, Gicinto ran a secretive unit called the Strategic Services Group, which is accused of spying on "politicians, regulators, law enforcement, taxi organizations, and labor unions in, at a minimum, the US." Uber executives used a private tool called "God View" to track a journalist's movements, while a team of ex-CIA agents was used to bug hotel rooms and conduct sting operations against rivals. Which is incredibly disturbing, although it would be great if the new Jack Ryan series sees him leave the CIA and spend an entire season trying to infiltrate a Courtyard Marriott.
Wal-Mart runs a large surveillance operation out of a site known as the "Bat-Cave," where former FBI and CIA agents monitor employee communications, including private Gmail and Hotmail accounts. The team of 400 agents also allegedly spied on community organizing groups like ACORN. The full existence of this program was only exposed after one employee was caught intercepting and recording the phone calls of a New York Times reporter. Meanwhile, a lawyer working on a case against mining company ENRC discovered a camouflaged surveillance location (concealed with chicken wire wrapped in foliage) linked to hidden cameras in his garden. It's possible that the local foxes had just gotten very organized, but somehow we doubt it.
One of the most stunning cases involved the Ringling Bros. Circus, the colorful collection of clowns that used to bring joy to children everywhere. But behind the scenes, Ringling had a team of retired CIA agents who did shit like infiltrate PETA and cover up a massive TB outbreak among Ringling's elephants. When a journalist called Jan Pottker started writing a book about the circus, Ringling spies bugged her house, monitored her friends and tailed her everywhere. When they couldn't dig up any dirt, they simply set up a fake literary agency, commissioned her to write a different book instead, then faked a copyright dispute to ensure it would never come out. Pottker spent literally eight years with no idea that her colleague was a Ringling spy who kept sabotaging her career.
The list is basically endless. Campaigners to ban asbestos spent years collaborating with a documentary filmmaker, without realizing that he was secretly a spy for an asbestos manufacturer. Dow Chemical had an outside contractor tapping the phones and rifling through trash at Greenpeace. Multiple companies relied on "super-spy" Mary Lou Sapone, who infiltrated left-wing organizations and almost got on the board of the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence (while reporting back to the NRA). She was finally exposed in a sting operation in which other activists informed her about fake protests, which were immediately reported to the police. Chevron has spent years waging a terrifying campaign against lawyer Steven Donziger who won a multi-billion dollar judgement for Amazon pollution. He's currently under house arrest after Chevron's favorite judge "appointed a private law firm to prosecute Donziger, after the Southern District of New York declined to do so -- a move that is virtually unprecedented."
The trend of hiring former spies really kicked off after the Cold War ended, when a lot of former CIA and FBI guys entered the private sector, bringing their espionage experience with them. Motorola was an early champion, hiring a former CIA agent named Jan Herring to establish the first corporate intelligence service. So the next time you complain about an Amazon delivery and wake up in a floating reeducation center hidden in the Pacific garbage patch, just remember: Everything is Motorola's fault. Just like it was in 2005.
Top image: Tero Vesalainen/Shutterstock