While the Patriot Act has raised fears about government spying on ordinary citizens, the growing threat to civil liberties posed by corporate spying has received much less attention. During the late 1990s, a private security firm spied on Greenpeace and other environmental groups, examining activists' phone records and even sending undercover agents to infiltrate the groups, according to an article in Mother Jones. In 2006 Hewlett-Packard was caught spying on journalists. Last year Wal-Mart apologized for improperly recording conversations with a New York Times reporter.
And now it turns out that the Burger King Corporation, home of the Whopper, hired a private security firm to spy on the Student/Farmworker Alliance, a group of idealistic college students trying to improve the lives of migrants in Florida.
The Student/Farmworker Alliance and an affiliated nonprofit, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have for years been urging the fast-food industry to accept some responsibility for the plight of Florida migrants who harvest the tomatoes for its hamburgers and tacos. I am a longtime supporter of their work. The wages of these farm workers, adjusted for inflation, have declined by as much as 70 percent since the late 1970s. And hundreds, perhaps thousands, of migrants have been enslaved by labor contractors and forced to work without pay. The McDonald's Corporation and Yum Brands (which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC) have agreed to subsidize a modest pay raise for their tomato pickers and work closely with the coalition to eliminate slavery from the fields. Burger King, however, has pursued a different strategy.
In March, a woman named Cara Schaffer contacted the Student/Farmworker Alliance, saying she was a student at Broward Community College. Her eagerness aroused suspicions, but she was allowed to join two of the group's planning sessions. Internet searches by the alliance revealed that she was not a college student.
Ms. Schaffer is the 25-year-old owner of a private security firm. Her company, Diplomatic Tactical Services, seems like the kind of security firm you'd find in one of Carl Hiaasen's crime thrillers. Last year Ms. Schaffer was denied a private investigator's license; she had failed to supply the Florida licensing division with proof of "lawfully gained, verifiable experience or training." Even more unsettling, one of her former subcontractors, Guillermo Zarabozo, is now facing murder charges in United States District Court in Miami for his role in allegedly executing four crew members of a charter fishing boat, then dumping their bodies at sea.