Whatever Hysteria Exists is Inflamed by... Secrecy — Part III

Michael McTague  |

Image: Army carrier pigeon with dispatch being attached to leg, St. Pole, France, May 13, 1918. Source: George Lane, National Archives, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In this third and final entry of the series (see Part I and Part II), we look at the sometimes unpleasant balance between making money and maintaining an ethical core, a challenge faced across industries.

During the pandemic, governments greatly expanded their irritating tendency to spy on people. Under the name of controlling the spread of the virus, a range of agencies seek people’s opinions, social arrangements, private comments and movements on a frightening scale. An array of private corporations and government employees stands behind them using a combination of the latest drone technology and ages-old gumshoe techniques.

Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) remains the most obvious example of a company that puts profits ahead of ethics. Its image has taken a nose dive from profiting by reporting people’s buying and searching habits. Basically unchecked in this area, the social media giant moved quickly to track people’s movements during the pandemic and profited by selling the information.

People are aware of what the algorithm gang is up to. A May 2021 survey by Axios/Harris ranked Facebook 98th out of 100 companies for corporate reputation, displaying a huge drop in the company's image. It is moving from the social media giant to the anti-social media giant. Since we began this series, the tide has turned against Facebook.

The scope of these spying operations is breathtaking. In fact, beyond Facebook, many other companies profit from the search for personal habits and social movements. This includes spying on people’s travel plans, listening to telephone conversations and surfing emails and text messages.

So, Facebook continues to use poor judgment, spying on private activities and getting paid for it. The government greatly exceeds Facebook’s efforts and makes taxpayers pay for it. All along, there is no major outcry and no large, organized effort to stop this activity. The lonely US Post Office seems to be the only place where you get into real trouble for spying (opening or stealing someone’s mail). 

Spying is everywhere. One spying product freely available is called Rapid Deployment Eavesdropping Kit, which is designed to detect eavesdropping equipment. Sold by SpyAssociates.com, the product name shows that secrecy products are no secret. Imagine Kim Philby, the famous double agent, saying, “Hi, I’m a spy. Can I get some secrets?” A quick Internet search shows various competing products for the Eavesdropping Kit. This means that a cheap spy — and there must be a few — might actually bargain for the price of up-to-date spying paraphernalia.

The stunning scope of US government spying leaps into dangerous language. While regular — “snail” — mail is exempt, protected by severe, long-standing penalties, international calls, text messages, web browsing and email are widely scanned at a dizzying pace. The general approach is to look for “suspicious keywords.” As one might expect when using “approved” software, some of the keywords prove laughable. An article in The Daily Mail listed some of the “suspicious” words that get the attention of the wide array of browsing technology and personnel. In addition to “Al Qaeda,” “terrorism” and “dirty bomb,” dangerous words include “bridge,” “wildfire” and “small pox.” 

So, be careful. If you work in marketing, be sure to say the new product is “spreading like a forest fire.” Going from New York to New Jersey? Take the Holland Tunnel — only two lanes — to avoid the George Washington BRIDGE. Suffering from an epidemic? Make it “Big Pox” not the SMALL kind.

The Myth Buster was drafted into the US Army many years ago. In similar government fashion, instead of questioning draftees about the Weather Underground, the army asked about the Serbo Croation League – a World War I relic.

In this series, we note the array of new businesses spawned by the explosion of James Bond mimics. Sophisticated equipment scans billions of private communications. One estimate is that from 2015 to 2019, over $100 million was spent on US government spying efforts. Apparently, much of the material was already known to the FBI and other agencies.

In earlier entries in this series, we mentioned some of the companies boosting revenue through sales of drones and other spying equipment. Additional  manufacturers of spying equipment include SONY (NYSE: SONY), Gopro (Nasdaq: GPRO), Panasonic (OTC: PCRFY) and Eastman Kodak (NYSE: KODK). Consider these additional notables:

A summary of Subsea states, “Types of cameras include shoe, helicopter, triple head, variable filter, bullet, thru hull, tow, push, miniature. Monochrome video cameras, controllers, consoles/monitors, lights and DVRs are available.”

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There is one other opportunity for relatively secret communication: carrier pigeons. Low technology frequently provides an Achilles Heel to the most intense technological activity. A quick Internet search brings up a carrier pigeon service in Pensacola, Florida. Of course, they use the Internet, which removes any chance of secrecy, and it is only logical that even their pigeons cannot fly thousands of miles. But, this peculiar business offers a chance to “fly under the radar.” Skeptics should take note that Pigeon (the actual name of the company!) is next to the Pensacola Naval Air Station, which houses a very expensive stockpile of military might. But they probably cannot track those tiny pigeons.

This series uncovered the automatic tendency to brush off criticism when a company or the government spies. The series also shows that bad news eventually catches up to an organization. Next month, the Myth Buster will tackle a new myth in the world of business.

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Michael McTague, Ph.D. is Executive Vice President at Able Global Partners in New York, a private equity firm.

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Equities Contributor: Michael McTague, PhD

Source: Equities News

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