The information revolution has spawned a global industry of private intelligence services. Some members of the U.S. Congress have recently asked whether their activities should be regulated.
The rapidly growing private intelligence and security industry has become a multibillion-dollar business. It can be roughly divided into two sectors:
* those that deal with security threats and provide intelligence and security in combat-related operations;
* those that provide companies with vital intelligence needed to expand business and avoid unnecessary pitfalls in an emerging marketplace. These companies also collect data on private citizens, which is often sold to companies wishing to market their products or those in the business of guarding airports and other vital national infrastructure from terrorist attack.
Threat To Privacy
Some members of the U.S. Congress are worried that the unregulated spread of private intelligence agencies could constitute a threat to privacy rights enjoyed by U.S. citizens.
In a statement dated 22 February 2003 (http://leahy.senate.gov/press/200502/022205.html), U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) cautioned his colleagues that the case of ChoicePoint Inc. -- a private U.S.-based company that inadvertently sold 145,000 personal and financial records of Americans to conmen posing as legitimate businessmen -- is an indication that "new technologies, new private-public domestic security partnerships, and the rapid rise of giant information brokers...have all combined to produce powerful new threats to privacy."
According to "The Washington Post" on 20 January, ChoicePoint has contracts with the Justice Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to provide public records online.
The paper reported that: "ChoicePoint and other private companies increasingly occupy a special place in homeland security and crime-fighting efforts, in part because they can compile information and use it in ways government officials sometimes cannot because of privacy and information laws."
Leahy has pointed out that databases of giant information companies contain billions of records on individuals "that include sensitive information such as financial, travel, medical, and insurance data."
"Very little is known about the integrity and handling of this information, and there are insufficient rules and oversight to protect public privacy," Leahy said.
Immune from parliamentary oversight committees and many restrictions governing their activities, private security and intelligence services are being hired by intelligence agencies for myriad tasks.
Often run by prominent former spies, these privately owned companies present themselves as an alternative source of information gathering and offer other special services.
The U.S. State Department lists 29 private companies doing business in Iraq. Among them are such companies as:
* AKE Limited is based out of the United Kingdom and is described on the State Department's website (http://travel.state.gov/travel/ci_pa_tw/cis/cis_1763.html) as a company that offers "Hostile regions training, twice-weekly Iraq Security Briefings, private intelligence, and security reports."
* Meyer & Associates from Texas offers "Security consulting and problem resolution...intelligence, transportation...threat assessment, kidnap negotiations, investigations, reporting, analysis, liaison with government, diplomatic, military, local and guerilla leaders."
* The Overseas Security & Strategic Information, Inc/Safenet, based in Atlanta, Georgia, provides: "threat and intelligence reporting" and claims that its approach "is responsive, personalized, and cost-effective."
These and other companies working in Iraq have government contracts to provide intelligence reports, man security posts for government facilities in the country, debrief prisoners, serve as translators in jails, and guard oil pipelines from sabotage. Many employees of these companies have been killed by Iraqi insurgent or terrorist attacks.
According to an article on the Corporate Watch website (http://www.corpwatch.org) on 7 March: "50 percent of the $40 billion given annually to the 15 intelligence agencies in the United States is now spent on private contractors."
One such private intelligence company is Athena, a subsidiary of the Israeli-based Merkhav Group. Athena, which has offices in the United States, Greece, and Israel, is headed by ex-Mossad head Shabtai Shavit. His former subordinate, Yossi Maiman, is the head of Merkhav and is considered by many to be one of the most influential men in Israel -- and Turkmenistan.
Athena promotes its services in a brochure available on the Internet titled "Intelligence From Open Sources" where it says that: "Intelligence is no longer reserved solely for government and state organizations. Today's terror attacks have brought about an awareness of the need for advanced information. Public and private organizations can now perform a self-assessment of their vulnerability and the security risks posed by terrorism."
Athena is very clear in its understanding of the world of intelligence: "Intelligence, until the end of the 80s, was a subject dealt with by governments and nations. It brought with it connotations of military and state security issues. Companies and private people dealt with information -- not with intelligence. During the 90s, more and more corporations developed the concept of business and industrial intelligence as a competitive tool."
While such companies as Athena claim to gather information only from open sources, there is always the danger of companies straying beyond such self-imposed restrictions and gaining access to nonpublic, confidential sources in order to satisfy clients. How such sources are tapped can become a delicate matter and in certain circumstances privacy laws could be violated.
The question facing lawmakers is what to do if any of these private intelligence services become "rogue elephants" and -- inadvertently or not -- sell their information to criminals or terrorists.
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