Wednesday 29 July 2020 11:40 am

Corporate spy firm tries to clean up 'James Bond' industry's image

Technology firm Ground Truth Intelligence (GTI) has today launched its ethical investigations platform in London, as the company seeks to shake-up the corporate intelligence industry following high-profile scandals involving companies such as Lekoil and Credit Suisse.

The London-headquartered firm is set to provide an “alternative approach” to the global intelligence and investigations industry, offering ethical and technology-led resources to banks, corporations and law firms in more than 200 jurisdictions.

Stewart Kelly, founder and chief executive of GTI, has called the intelligence industry a “late bloomer” in technology adoption, adding that its slow uptake has contributed to its “impression as a murky, shady, mysterious James Bond industry”.

Intelligence services are used by companies around the world to perform due diligence on employees, clients and business partners to make informed management decisions.

However, its reputation has suffered at the hands of several high-profile scandals, including the use of intelligence services by convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein to smear and intimidate his victims.

Several corporate blunders have also tarnished the industry’s reputation, including Credit Suisse’s spying scandal last year, which led to the high-profile resignation of chief executive Tidjane Thiam. The Swiss Bank was thrown in the spotlight after it emerged two former employees had been put under surveillance by a corporate espionage company.

Earlier this year, London-listed oil group Lekoil saw shares plunge more than 70 per cent after it fell victim to a high-stakes fraud, in which the Nigerian-focused firm paid middlemen to facilitate a bogus loan worth more than $184m.

Speaking to City A.M, GTI chief Kelly said the scandals had created an “image of mystery” around the corporate intelligence industry, when “the reality is actually far more vanilla”.

“This type of work actually helps corporations combat corruption, helps banks combat financial crime [and] helps investigate wrongdoing. So for every individual case where there’s a story of dodgy goings on or people going through bins or people following people in the Caribbean islands, there’s actually thousands and thousands of much more normal routine cases.”

Kelly said his new investigations platform will utilise technology to help “lift the veil of mystery” in the industry and make investigations “more streamlined, more efficient [and] more cost effective.”

“The intelligence and investigations sector doesn’t make use of technology anywhere near as much as it could,” said Kelly adding that it was “crying out” for reform.

Recent allegations surrounding British fast fashion firm Boohoo have once again thrust the investigations sector in the spotlight, after it was revealed that workers at a garment factory producing clothes for the brand were paid as little as £3.50 an hour.

Boohoo denied any knowledge of claims, but opened a review into its working conditions.

Kelly said the revelations proved business needs to weed out the “box check approach” to due diligence processes.

“How did all these investors invest in Boohoo and take their word for it?… You’ll find that in intelligence there’s still, in some cases, this kind of box check approach. [They say] ‘we’ve got a report from the big name so everything must be fine.’” 

Kelly added: “When it comes to fraud and corruption, companies need to be demonstrating that they’re actually paying attention to these issues, rather just running a quick check and getting the green light.”

However, new GDPR rules have paved the way for a cleaner approach to corporate intelligence. The fresh data rules, which came into effect in 2018, mean targets of investigations now have the right to identify who is looking into them and the data they are gathering.

And the European Court of Justice’s decision earlier this month to ban a data sharing-deal between the US and the EU has lifted the threshold for surveillance laws in the UK.

The UK’s intelligence gathering laws will now likely be subject to similar scrutiny as those of the US, as Britain seeks to strike a data sharing deal with the EU post-Brexit.

Such an agreement will likely add pressure to the increasing need for transparency in the corporate intelligence sector.

Kelly said: “It may end up being slightly less James Bond, but recent scandals show that things need to change — and if ethics don’t get there first, then surely the pace of technology will.”

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