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How to Apply Ethics to the Three Competitive Intelligence Categories

Although you don’t want to cloud your competitive intelligence ethical standards with situational thinking (that is, letting the circumstances guide what you deem appropriate), you and others in your organization need to know how ethical guidelines apply to various situations.

In other words, you need to shift from thinking about ethics in a theoretical framework to thinking about it in a practical way that governs decisions and behaviors. One way to shift your thinking is to look at how ethical standards play out in the three different intelligence categories: human, signal, and image intelligence.

Human intelligence (humint)

Human intelligence, or humint, is information or insights you obtain by communicating directly with individuals through face-to-face interviews, phone calls, e-mail messages, and so on. Depending on the source, human intelligence is often the most comprehensive and highest quality intelligence available. As you gather humint, answer the following questions to determine whether you’re gathering the intelligence and can use it ethically:

  • Does the acquisition of information pose a conflict of interest? If your source has ulterior motives for sharing confidential information, such as a desire to harm or get even with a former employer, don’t pursue the source or accept or use any information the person shares.

    In addition, if the person is breaking the law or violating your organization’s ethical standards in supplying the information, that information is off limits.

  • Are your sources expecting any benefit as a result of providing the information? If your sources are expecting money, a job, proprietary information, or something else of value in exchange for the information, you’re essentially bribing the person, which is unethical and may be illegal.

  • Do any legal issues restrict the provision or use of the information? For example, you can’t dig through a dumpster that’s on your competitor’s property to gather discarded memos and reports. (If the dumpster is on public property, digging through it to gather competitive intelligence may be legal, but it’s still unethical.)

  • Have you provided full disclosure about yourself, your job, and your objectives? If you’re requesting information, you need to identify yourself, the company you work for, your position, and what you intend to use the information for. Posing as an intern to gather information about a competitor or staging a job interview to extract confidential information from a competitor’s current or former employee is unethical.

  • Are the people communicating the information aware of your presence and that you may be listening to their comments? Eavesdropping on a conversation at an airport to gather CI may be legal, but it’s unethical.

    If you want to listen in, either introduce yourself and make it clear that you might use what the parties tell you as part of your organization’s CI, or walk away so you won’t be tempted to listen in.

Confidential information displayed on a computer screen is not fair game. If you’re tempted to peek, look away or move to a different seat or another room.

Signals intelligence (sigint)

Signals intelligence (also called sigint) is any information that’s exchanged electronically; for example, via the Internet, phone lines, or radio transmissions. In the context of sigint, this means data that’s exchanged between parties electronically that could be intercepted by or mistakenly delivered to a third party. It does not refer to e-mail messages or faxes that are directed to you or digital information that’s publicly accessible.

Obviously, hacking your competitor’s e-mail server, using SMS (text message) spy software to intercept text messages, and tapping the phone of your competitor’s CEO are unethical, but what about messages that you receive in error?

If you receive an e-mail, text message, fax, or other form of confidential information that’s intended for someone else, advise the sender of his error, inform your legal department of the incident, and destroy and ignore any information you received. Don’t use the information or pass it along to anyone else. Using the information is unethical and could ultimately get you into legal trouble.

Image intelligence (imint)

Image intelligence (imint) consists of photographs or video, which may include photos of a competitor’s production line, satellite images of building sites, or video footage of competitors loading or unloading trucks. To decide whether you can use certain photos or video footage ethically in CI, answer the following questions:

  • Does the image show what’s in plain view? If the image shows something that anyone can see, then it’s fair game. However, if you have to go out of your way to obtain the image, then it’s off limits. For example, a satellite image of a building site is fair game, but surreptitiously taking photos of the inside of a manufacturing facility during a plant tour is unethical.

  • Are you using any form of deception to obtain the images? You’re not allowed to engage in deception to obtain the images; for example, by posing as a prospective customer to get inside a distribution center and clandestinely snapping photos with a spy-cam or hiring someone on the inside to shoot video for you.

  • Is this information that could be obtained by anyone? More often than not, the plain-view test is usually best: Has the owner of the information knowingly and intentionally made the information available in a public manner? If so, it’s fair game.

  • Are you violating any ethical standards in obtaining the information? Information may be off limits even if it passes the plain-view test. Ethics forbid you, for example, from taking anything from someone just because that person is careless with it.

    If someone drops a $50 bill while checking out at the grocery store, you’re not allowed to just pick it up and keep it for yourself. In the same way, taking a trade secret that’s displayed on a computer screen or overheard in an airport lounge is unethical and probably may even be illegal.

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