Reports that Hewlett-Packard considered sending spies into the newsrooms of The Wall Street Journal and CNET shows how executives can forget the difference between right and wrong and become obsessed with secrecy.
Every organization needs to protect its organizational trade secrets, business plans and personnel information for competitive and legal reasons. And anyone working for an organization as an employee, director or supplier has an ethical and often legal obligation to keep confidential information secret.
But no organizations—including political parties, politicians or non-governmental, private organizations—have the right to spy on anyone for any reason.
The question is, how do you define spy?
In HP’s case, spying involved pretexting telephone records, probably probing garbage, staking out reporters’ homes and the homes of HP officers and employees, and sending private investigators into publications’ offices (newsrooms) under false pretenses. Spying is calling someone up and pretending that you are someone else in an attempt to obtain information that you know the source is legally bound to keep confidential.
It is not spying for a reporter or investigator to call a source, provide an accurate identity, and negotiate with the person in the hopes that he or she will talk. That’s business and journalism.
What Americans are wondering is whether corporate executives and politicians have become so competitive and paranoid and fearful of litigation that they are obsessed with secrecy and willing to do anything to protect their information and obtain their competitors’ and enemies’ secrets?