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The camera never lies… or does it?

September 16, 2010 1 comment

When people look at a photograph, they see a snapshot of history. That is one reason that people used to say that the camera never lied. Of course, today, with Photoshop people are warier and look for signs that the photo has been edited. There have been a number of notorious recent incidents of photo editing that highlight this problem. Examples include

However there is another problem with photos – and also news stories, and gathered information in general. That is the context. Understanding the context is crucial for effective business decisions. Gathering information is not the difficult bit. It’s analysing the information to convert it into intelligence that is hard. Without the correct context, poor or even disastrous decisions may be made. These may impact both business and individuals.

An example of how this can happen was highlighted in a sermon given by Rabbi Ivan Lerner on the sabbath between the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashana) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Rabbi Lerner pointed out that the Hebrew word for truth (אמת Emet) is made up of the first, middle and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Truth about an event isn’t just information about what is happening at a point in time, but also includes the events that led up to that point, and the consequences of the actions taken based on the event. It includes the beginning, middle and end. Rabbi Lerner gave an example from the famous photograph taken by Eddie Adams on the 1st February 1968.

Eddie Adam's Pulitzer Prize photo. This photo led to Adam’s gaining the 1969 Pulitzer prize for spot news photography, as well as the World Press Photo award. The photo showed the moment of execution of a Viet Cong prisoner by General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Close examination even showed the bullet exiting from the prisoner’s head.

The impact of the photo was immeasurable. Calls were made to charge General Loan with a war crime for the execution of an “innocent” civilian. The anti-war movement used the photo to justify their protests against a war that was seen as overly savage, cruel and gratuitous.

The impact on General Loan was significant. A few months later, Loan was severely wounded and taken to Australia for treatment. When people realised he was the same man from the photo, protests led to him being evacuated to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Even then protests continued – and Loan returned to Saigon, leaving the army due to his injuries. At the fall of Saigon his pleas for help from the Americans were ignored although in the end, he and his family managed to escape and he moved to the US – where he took on a new identity. He opened a pizzeria in Virginia but in 1991, he was discovered – and business disappeared, with graffiti scrawled on the restaurant walls.

The story so far shows the event and its aftermath – but not the context that led to the execution. General Loan was vilified as a war criminal, while Nguyễn Văn Lém was seen as the innocent victim. Loan had to hide his identity and lost his future as a result. In fact, the executed prisoner – Nguyễn Văn Lém – was not an innocent. He commanded a Viet Cong death squad that had targeted South Vietnamese police and their families. He was captured near a ditch containing over 30 bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives – men, women and children. Lém was personally responsible for the deaths of several. Adams has confirmed that this was the case. The Viet Cong had attacked during a truce arranged for the Tet Holiday. Some of their victims has been at home celebrating.

Subsequently Adams found out more about General Loan. Loan was seen as a hero to the South Vietnamese. He wasn’t just a soldier. He fought for the construction of hospitals, helping war orphans and for a way of life that was destroyed. Adams regretted taking the photo because of what happened afterwards. (Eddie Adams describing his notorious Vietnam photograph)

…Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?…’ (Eulogy: GENERAL NGUYEN NGOC LOAN, Time Magazine, Jul. 27, 1998)

Information needs a context. When gathering information it is important to know the source and why the information became available. It is important to understand the context and when interpreting it, there should be no hidden agenda. The Adams picture failed in that it didn’t give the context and instead only helped to support and confirm the biases of anti-war journalists, letting them further their own agenda. As such, it ruined Loan’s life.

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Unethical CI – out in the open!

March 4, 2010 Leave a comment
As a competitive intelligence specialist, we try to practice what we preach – and keep an eye on our own competitors. In most cases, we view ourselves as complementers as much as we are also competitors. There is enough work for all of us – and the market is far from saturated.

Part of the task of a Competitive Intelligence consultancy is to show companies that competitive intelligence is a necessary business skill – and that it is legitimate and ethical to outsource competitor research to external consultants whatever can’t be handled in-house. (Reasons for outsourcing include lack of time, lack of skills and experience and the need for an objective view – which can’t be obtained by doing research in-house). In fact AWARE views training in competitive & marketing intelligence as a key element of its business mission, so as to raise CI/MI skills.

There are many ethical competitive intelligence consultants apart from us – in the USA there is Market Analytics, Fuld and Aurorawdc to name three. In Australia – the Mindshifts Group,  led by CI industry leader Babette Bensoussan is important. Within Europe there are similar consultancies. We link to a number of top CI consultancies on our alliances web pages.

Unfortunately there are also several companies that fall short ethically and even legally. I recently came across one – with a great domain name, but that’s as far as it goes.  This “business intelligence” company (which I won’t name for now, for legal reasons), openly states that they engage in industrial espionage.

Secondary research – their “light touch” is legitimate if it doesn’t employ hacking or password cracking. However their in-depth research placing moles into the target company is highly unethical and probably illegal (depending on the information supplied, and any non-disclosure agreements signed by the agent and their “employer”).

Such behaviour brings all competitive intelligence under suspicion – which is part of the rationale behind this post: to expose such shenanigans.

Fortunately this “business intelligence service”  doesn’t come cheap and only very few (probably desperate) companies will avail themselves of such services. In fact the company actually implies this by saying on their web-site:

We hope that you never need our services, but if you do, then you can be assurred of an excellent service.

Their charges range from £10,000 for the “light touch” research to £150,000 for their in-depth research (including “employee placement and surveillance“). Even this is not their top price. When looking at individuals, pricing ranges from £25,000 for “light touch” research verifying personal details, employment, connected people, etc. to £200,000 for fully in-depth analysis (lifetime checks, asset checks, lifestyle, etc.). Some assignments are charged at fees of up to £25,000 per day (although most are claimed to be a fraction of this).

To put things into context, we have never charged anything like £10,000 for pure desk research and from conversations with other consultants, they haven’t either.

They claim that their “researchers” come from military, police and government service backgrounds – but they don’t mention any business or marketing background. They seem to be ignoring, or perhaps do not even know the risks involved in industrial espionage and based on what they offer, I’d question whether they’d see the value in standard strategic analysis as a means for understanding competitors. (The US Economic Espionage Act, 1996 is just one risk. Even when companies don’t go to law, there can be serious financial ramifications for espionage).

Instead of looking at public non-confidential intelligence that, when aggregated, can create a detailed picture of all aspects of a company they seem to prefer subterfuge. Such approaches may say what a company is currently planning but it won’t help in understanding what the company is thinking or likely to do in the future

Interestingly this company is not as immune to standard CI investigation as they probably think. Standard secondary research suggests that they use a Plymouth, UK, based front company for finding work placements for their agents, and that their minimalist web-site has at least one hidden / secret directory – which can be found by searching for a robots.txt file. 

CI versus corporate espionage: thoughts on an ABC News story

February 19, 2010 3 comments

I read this news item from ABC news ‘James Bond’ Tactics Help Companies Spy on Each Other” and had only one thought: that guy is totally unethical and wrong.

A few years ago, an Israeli colleague commented to me that in his experience, most of the ex-secret service operatives who try and enter the commercial world of CI fail. The reason he said is that they don’t know the boundaries of what is legitimate competitive intelligence collection and what is corporate espionage, and illegitimate. He also said that in many cases, they also have no real idea of budgets and what is valuable to a company strategically versus the cost of obtaining it. Most never had a budgetary role when working for the various national security services and so could not do a cost-benefit analysis effectively.

This story shows both examples. Purchasing the garbage from an organisation is not only unethical but strikes me as wasteful. Garbage is thrown away for a reason – it’s not wanted and valueless. The majority of companies today have shredders and routinely shred anything that would be seen as highly sensitive. True, the mid-level material may be chucked, but not the high-level stuff. (And those that don’t shred deserve what they get – I’d be surprised that any Fortune 500 companies don’t have shredding contracts!)

As for the other shenanigans implied – any company that employed a consultant to use such techniques deserves to get sued and end up paying more than they gained. The trouble is some do – and the list of companies that learned the hard-way that espionage doesn’t pay is still growing.

So let me make it clear: espionage is wrong, while CI is a legitimate practice that uses only ethical means to collect intelligence.

This involves declaring your identity and NOT collecting information that would be classed as secret or confidential. As Issur Harel the Israeli spy-chief responsible for capturing the Nazi war murderer, Eichmann, is reported to have said:

We do not deal with certainties. The world of intelligence is the world of probabilities. Getting the information is not usually the most difficult task. What is difficult is putting upon it the right interpretation. Analysis is everything. James Bond is not the real world.

A tale of two countries

December 18, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve just read the story of James Bain who was freed after DNA evidence proved that he was innocent. Bain was apparently convicted on the evidence of a line-up despite other evidence not linking him to the crime he was accused of. Of course Bain is not white – and so the US justice system – certainly that from 35 years ago – was prejudiced against him.

Contrast this to the cries against the Italian justice system that has just convicted an American citizen and her Italian boyfriend of a brutal murder – also based on DNA evidence. In the case of Amanda Knox and Rafaelle Sollecito it wasn’t just DNA evidence either. There were bloodied footprints, erratic behaviour post-murder with changing and inconsistent stories, evidence of antagonism between Knox and her victim, plus more.
Too often, the American legal system seems prejudiced against those least able to defend themselves – look at the differences in the ethnicity of people sentenced to death versus those who escape a capital sentence.
Now contrast this to the Italian legal system where a white, affluent Italian, and his white affluent girl-friend were treated equally to Rudy Guede, a black Ivory Coast accused – sentenced earlier.
The only bias here is not the Italian legal system but the Americans who believe that you can only get justice in the USA, and that the Italian legal system and the judgement is flawed.
If this was the only example of hypocrisy emanating from the US it could be excused – but unfortunately it isn’t. Another example is the US “justice” system’s hounding of Gary McKinnon – an Asperger sufferer who has been accused of exposing weaknesses in US military computers and so has to be sentenced so that those who failed to protect the system can get off free.
So what has this to do with competitive intelligence? Maybe nothing – on the surface. However if you think about, a lot. As it shows how important it is to remain objective – unlike with Gary McKinnon; to avoid prejudice – as was shown with the Bain case and also the objections to the Knox case; and to ensure that there are multiple lines of evidence before coming to a conclusion and making a decision – as in the Knox case but not in the Bain case.
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