21 Jun 12 Ethics of using social media for CI

VN_EthicsI am baffled by the title of a recent press release from Assocham – “Corporate espionage via social media rampant in India Inc.: Survey”. It is misleading.

Assocham conducted a survey in 5 cities in India, covering 1500 senior people in companies across a wide range of verticals and 200 detective agencies. They asked them questions about the prevalence of industrial espionage and security measures taken by companies to prevent this.

The finding that unethical practices are rampant in India, is not totally surprising. We know it exists. But this is the first time (in my knowledge) that anyone has actually tried to research and quantify it.

The Assocham press release is misleading in suggesting that use of social media for getting information on rivals amounts to corporate espionage. Social media monitoring is a globally accepted tool for competitive intelligence. Yes, it needs to be used with care, as companies also spread mis-information to confuse the competitors. But by no stretch of imagination does it qualify as industrial espionage. Any information that is put in public places is open for all to see, and use. Social networking sites are public places.

If companies or individuals don’t want their competitors to see or use some data, they should not post it in a public place. For this, they do need to take “counter-intelligence” measures. One of the things they can do is to educate their employees regarding this. For example, sometimes employees discuss their organisation’s strategy, performance, policies, etc in public discussion forums. This can be mined by the competitors to gain insights on the company that they would not otherwise have. Organisations can prohibit their employees from posting certain kinds of information on social media.

The press release also does not clearly distinguish between different types of activities undertaken by companies – corporate espionage, competitive intelligence and security measures. I feel compelled to bring clarity on this issue.

Here is a break up of the list of activities mentioned in the press release, into type of activity and whether it is ethical.

Practice Type Is this ethical?
1,110 respondents used social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Linkedin, Friendster to find information on their rivals and their employees. Competitive intelligence Yes
Companies plant moles in their rival companies to ascertain if the trade union leaders are being paid by their rivals to create trouble. Corporate espionage No
A staggering 900 companies admitted to planting bugs and moles in the competitors’ offices. Corporate espionage No
As many as a quarter of them hired computer experts to hack their competitors’ networks. Corporate espionage No
Around 1200 respondents said they used detective agencies to spy on their own employees and their ex-employees. Security measure Not clear, depends on the details of what and why
Companies conduct background checks of their employees as part of screening. Security measure Yes
Many of the companies install gadgets to monitor their own employees’ website connections, phone calls, emails and files. Security measure Yes

“Competitive Intelligence (CI) is a necessary, ethical business discipline for decision making based on understanding the competitive environment.” – SCIP. Social media monitoring is a legitimate CI tool.

It is important to remove misconceptions about CI. What other misconceptions have you encountered?

Varsha Chitale

Varsha led the competitive intelligence practice at ValueNotes. As part of her drive to educate India Inc. on the merits of competitive intelligence, she often conducted webinars and seminars on CI for senior executives of Indian companies.

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