Dumpster Diving

Dumpster diving is the practice of sorting through another’s garbage or recycling to retrieve something of value. While the object of the activity may be food for a hungry person, it can also be used as a surveillance tool—sorting through the trash to uncover information. Potentially directed at both individuals and organizations, the latter has had more discussion because of its prevalence as a means of gathering competitor information (though individuals related to an organization may be targeted as well). This entry focuses chiefly on dumpster diving for surveillance of organizations, providing a review of reasons for doing it and the techniques employed, opinions about the ethics and legality of dumpster diving, examples of well-known organizations that utilized the technique, and governmental usage of the tactic.

The practice of dumpster diving is sometimes referred to as garbology or trash archaeology, perhaps to provide a touch of respectability. One of the primary arenas where dumpster diving is applied is in competitive intelligence (CI) or economic espionage work. Mainstream CI practitioners will avoid the technique, questioning its effectiveness, its ethics, and its potential for negative publicity. But the murkier field of economic espionage does employ dumpster diving more regularly.

But, as noted, there are legal and ethical issues with the practice that keep the more legitimate CI operations from using dumpster diving. >From a legal perspective, laws vary by country and even by region (e.g., by state in the United States). But, by and large, trash is considered abandoned property, so the action of taking it is often not a crime. One complication in the law is whether the dumpster is owned by the targeted organization or by a separate disposal company. Another is its location. If on private property, trespassing laws would come into play, even if the act of taking the material was legal. Similarly, if any misrepresentation occurs, there will likely be a problem, even if the action itself violates nothing.

Opinions also vary regarding the ethics associated with dumpster diving. The Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) industry group doesn’t include any specific dumpster diving techniques or activities; it only urges operatives to follow all pertinent laws. In explanatory materials, SCIP doesn’t endorse dumpster diving but notes that any taking of confidential documents may be illegal and may violate the organization’s own code of conduct. What SCIP does recommend is weighing the public relations implications if the activity were to come to light. In one of the best-known cases of commercial dumpster diving, Procter & Gamble was accused of contracting another firm to obtain information concerning Unilever’s hair care product line. Dumpster diving was involved, resulting in dozens of documents concerning strategies and pricing. Procter & Gamble essentially blew the whistle on itself when top management learned the details, but it claimed that no laws were broken and it was only a breach of the corporation’s ethical standards. There were reports, however, that some of the operatives, when confronted, misrepresented themselves, claiming to be students or reporters.

One extension of the topic includes taking or sorting through the trash of third parties or even individuals. Typically, a CI or economic espionage operation will target the entire network of a competitor. Again, small tidbits of information may unlock bigger data troves, so no insight or source of data is considered too small. In another widely reported case, Oracle was accused of employing an investigative firm that, among other things, apparently attempted to buy the trash of a nonprofit firm supporting Microsoft’s antitrust defense. A cleaning crew at the Association for Competitive Technology was offered cash to funnel office trash to the operative, looking for evidence of funding sources for the nonprofit organization. The offer was declined, and the activity came to light. Oracle owned up to its role, though denied any knowledge of the investigative firm hired or that dumpster diving would take place.

The core organization may not even be the one targeted in an episode. A BusinessWeek report featured a video of an investigative firm posing as a garbage disposal service and collecting curbside trash at a private residence. The entire network of firms, organizations, and individuals involved with a target may be subject to dumpster diving.

Recently, government use of dumpster diving has also had some attention. While it is fairly well understood that anything, including trash, may be subject to seizure and analysis in the investigation of a crime, the Federal Bureau of Invesigation’s latest Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide establishes a lower bar for the activity. Agents conducting an assessment with no clear evidence of criminal activity are now given more leeway for investigations including rummaging through trash.

Overall, dumpster diving remains an activity on the edge of legality and ethics. Although often legal in and of itself, execution can require other illegal acts. The ethics are often referred to as an organizational decision. And while adjectives such as distasteful are repeatedly thrown around by organizations or professional groups discussing the activity, many fall back on legality when actual operations come to light.

G. Scott Erickson

See also Ethics ; Information Security ; Knowledge ; Privacy ; Privacy, Right to

Further Readings

Bridis, Ted. “Oracle-MS Flap: How It Happened.” ZDNet (June 29, 2000). http://www.zdnet.com/news/oracle-ms-flap-how-it-happened/96149

Ehrens, Amelia. “Competitive Intelligence Guru Fuld: Media Confuses Dumpster Diving With Competitive Intelligence” (September 6, 2001). http://www.oocities.org/maitef2001/arttrab2oyc.html (Accessed October 2017).

Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide” (December 16, 2008). http://documents.nytimes.com/the-new-operations-manual-from-the-f-b-i . (Accessed October 2014).

Savage, Charlie. “FBI Agents Get Leeway to Push Privacy Bounds.” The New York Times (June 12, 2011).

SCIP Code of Ethics for CI Professionals. http://www.scip.org/?page=CodeofEthics (Accessed October 2017).

Serwer, Andy. “P&G’s Covert Operation.” Fortune, v.144/5 (2001). http://archive.fortune.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2001/09/17/310274/index.htm (Accessed October 2014).

Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. “The Ethics of Competitive Intelligence.” http://tefkos.comminfo.rutgers.edu/Courses/e530/Readings/Ethics%20of%20competitive%20intelligence%202005.pdf (Accessed October 2017).