Tag Archives: ethics

The Call is Coming from Inside the House

It’s a horror movie trope that the babysitter, after receiving a series of menacing calls, receives a call from the police or the phone company to warn them, “The call is coming from inside the house!” Many stakeholders respond based on their sense that the Competitive Intelligence (CI) team may be a threatening call coming from inside the house. There are rational, if self-interested, reasons for stakeholders to be skeptical of CI and resistant to it. CI leaders must understand this reality and establish a sense of mutual accountability that grows with relationships, transparency, and time to overcome those reasons.

Stakeholders often sense an inherent threat and disruption from CI. This resistance can be particularly strong for industries and cultures dominated by zero-sum thinking and where people have a strong sense of identify from being “the best.” CI requires them to evaluate their own work in relationship to competitors’ work, and that can be challenging to the stakeholder’s identity and ego. For example, the “W” of a SWOT analysis on your own company, its products, or services may be perceived as implying that leaders made bad decisions or executed poorly. Any such analysis has a benefit of hindsight, and it can be difficult to reflect the decisions, complex systems of execution, and trade-offs that got the company to the current state. Stakeholders in that situation may bristle at seeing “Lack of Feature A” as a Weakness in a SWOT of their own company or product. “We couldn’t invest as much as we would have liked in Feature A because we were contractually obligated to deliver Features B and C for our three largest clients.”

If you expect your analysis may face this resistance, it’s critical to be as objective and transparent as possible. I involve stakeholders that may feel challenged by such assessments in the intelligence process. “The project is the deliverable” is one of my catchphrases. External, independent voices, such as voices of the customer or industry analysts, can go some way to validate difficult messages. In your talk track, notation, or conversations with stakeholders you can clarify your understanding of how the organization got to where it is. Finally, a solid sense of your own fallibility and the limitations of your information and intelligence go a long way to establishing credibility.

We as a professional community often regard ourselves as “smarter than” decision makers who don’t take our advice. However, those decision makers often have to evaluate factors of which we’re not aware or operate under constraints we’ve failed to consider. CI professionals are some of the very smartest people I know, and sometimes our sense of our own intelligence can lead us to be narrow, rational, arrogant, and dismissive. The best CI professionals I’ve seen take those factors into consideration and maintain a sense of humility when delivering their analysis. Often the most resistant or vocally negative stakeholder is feeling the most threatened, and understanding the reasoning for negative reactions (not excusing true toxicity) can go a long way to delivering better intelligence– intelligence that is more likely to be heeded and acted upon.

Legal and Ethical Questions about Internet-Based Competitive Intelligence Research

A fellow Competitive Intelligence professional emailed me recently to ask about the legality of Internet research based on a competitor’s robots.txt file and information marked “Confidential” yet available via web searches. I thought this was a topic that other Competitive Intelligence professionals may have questions about, and could foster some discussion about legality and ethics in our profession. I am sharing the body of my assessment of these questions in this post, and I hope you’ll share your thoughts and analysis in the comments.

A Competitive Intelligence professional needs to comply with their General Counsel’s advice. Even if you believe that activity is legal and ethical, your General Counsel is the final arbiter of the risk that your organization is willing to tolerate.

In the US, the Economic Espionage Act defines the legal basis for Competitive Intelligence. According to my understanding of the Act, based on conversations with legal experts, holders of sensitive information bear a substantial burden for keeping information secure.

The SCIP Code of Ethics requires researchers to be honest in their identities. Researchers can execute a sort of “general public” approach to Internet research, and the standard tools and methods available. Advanced Search falls within that framework. Using fake on-line identities, harvesting passwords, or “hacking” would violate that code.

So now we can examine each scenario on both a legal and ethical framework:

Information protected in robots.txt files: 

From a practical perspective, the methods I described in the article will not find information covered in robots.txt; Google and other search engines honor this file. 

In a legal sense, the holder of this information, placing information on a public server or platform, is not doing its part to protect that information.

In an ethical sense, it is a question whether or not looking at a robots.txt file or accessing the assets specified in that file constitutes hacking. I do not believe it does, as a researcher can use a standard browser and Internet connection. 

Corporate Counsel would be reasonable in setting a boundary against this activity, however. It’s fair to assume a competitor could bring a case based on this activity if it were to come to light.

Documents marked “Confidential”: 

From a legal perspective, marking information “Confidential” does not confer protection under the Economic Espionage Act. A holder of information marked Confidential still has an onus to take reasonable steps to protect that information, and posting the information to a public server does not meet a reasonable standard for protection.

From an ethical perspective, this varies by industry. For example, Government Contracting is one industry that takes confidentiality very seriously. Using competitor information marked “Confidential” is often the basis for charges of fraud. Aggrieved parties have made these charges even if the “stolen” information was improperly made available, e.g., on a public web server, a printed document left in a waiting room.

Again, Corporate Counsel would be reasonable to exclude this sort of information from CI research. Companies go to court when competitors have used their confidential information, even when the plaintiff did not meet a minimal standard for securing that information.