Try typing "company name" AND "company
confidential" (or AND "internal use") in any of the major
search engines. Wow. You'll get similarly interesting results if you
search for "price list" or "salary" along with the
So, what do you do if you find
this information? Youíre an info pro, so presumably your client
(whether internal or external) expects you to conduct as thorough a
search as possible. Do you pass along this
information on the assumption that, if it was spidered by a search
engine, it should be considered public
information? Alternatively, do you contact the company and tell them
that their Web site security is getting a bit leaky? Do you contact
your organizationís general counsel and ask for help?
I donít know the answers to these questions. But
as some competitive intelligence professionals have learned to their
chagrin, it is wise to assume that anything you or your staff do may
be written up on the front page of The New York Times. What makes
this issue so intriguing is that more
information is available on the Web, and we info pros are becoming
more adept at finding hidden or deep Web content.
The old formula of being able to maintain privacy by obscurity --
"What are the odds my employer will find that edgy newsgroup on
hallucinogens that I participate in?" -- no longer applies. How
"deep" should you go when researching an individual? Are postings in
a non-work-related newsgroup or e-mail discussion list fair game?
What about the personal information they post in a social networking
service such as
Linked in or
Hereís another deep Web research quandary. Say I discover one page
from a competitor, labeled "confidential,"
and I work backward through its URL to a section of the companyís
Web site, which contains other material
that probably is not intended for public dissemination,
but is in fact accessible. Is that ethically equivalent to someone
walking into my house if I leave the front door open? Or is anything
the company puts on its publicly-accessible Web site considered
Fortunately, there are plenty of
resources from the CI community on what is and isnít considered
ethical behavior. See, for example, the
Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionalsí resources.
Unfortunately, much of this information was written pre-Web, or at
least prior to the explosion of information available on the Web.
Your organization may have more stringent rules regarding what is
and isnít considered public information. If you work for a
multinational organization, you may also be bound by the far more
restrictive rules of European countries regarding personal
In any event, give this some
thought. Find out what others within your
organization think about this type of search. What's your comfort
© 2004, 2005 Mary Ellen Bates all rights reserved.