Centre for Internet & Society

Most companies are spying on their competitors and their own employees, according to a recent survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham).

The Statesman published this article on June 19, 2012. Sunil Abraham is quoted in it.

The survey's results raise questions about whether employees have enough privacy in the workplace. Rubbishing the survey's findings, head of the Indian Council of Corporate Investigators, Mr Kunwar Vikram Singh, said businesses are not spying but verifying facts.

The Assocham survey said almost 1,200 of 1,500 executives surveyed admitted to hiring people to spy on their employees and monitor their lifestyles. They said they watch former employees, too, especially those who had been laid off or kicked out for fraud.

In the survey, which was done between January and May this year in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai, the Delhi-National Capital Region and Mumbai, about 900 top industry officials said they carry out corporate espionage, bug the offices of their rivals and plant moles in other companies. About a quarter of respondents said they have hired computer experts to hack networks and track e-mails of their rivals.

Many more respondents — 1,110 of those questioned — said they use social media sites to track their rival companies and employees. “Most of the companies have mentioned their sensitive details including their data, plans, clients’ details, products and other confidential and trade-related secrets on their page and unknowingly share the same in the social media circuit,” said Mr DS Rawat, national secretary-general of Assocham, “which is why it is the most favoured spying activity being carried out by the companies.”

The practice of companies pilfering trade secrets and ideas may be bad for the country's business environment, said Mr Rawat. It “might dampen the spirit of innovation in the long-run,” he said.

The Indian Council of Corporate Investigators’ Mr Singh, however, disputed Assocham's picture of rampant corporate espionage. “I totally deny that corporates are spying on their employees,” he said. “It is not spying. It is verification of facts.”

Mr Singh said that when companies look into their employees or other companies, for example, before they enter into joint ventures, they are just carrying out “due diligence”. He said they legally gather information needed for companies to survive. He also denied there were any privacy issues.

Mr Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, though, said there are growing concerns about privacy in the workplace, including about intense video surveillance. “Managers started to object to this,” he said. “What they started saying was it really undermines the morale of these locations ... friends and relatives would ask, 'In spite of you being so educated, it's funny your companies don't trust you at all.'”  

Companies need to develop more nuanced ways to deal with these problems — perhaps something more similar to the military's multiple levels of clearance — and different ways for people to acquire and lose trust, Mr Abraham said. 

Whether or not surveillance is legal, depends on the type, Mr Abraham said. There is some private information a person will expect to remain private, and some information that is expected to be public — like Twitter feeds.

There is no law against monitoring this second type, known as “clear view surveillance”, he said, and blanket legislation could clash with freedom of expression. He said an ideal law for this should include a “proportional relation to power” clause, which would limit the legal ability of the powerful to monitor, but allow individual citizens more leeway.