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25 August 2008

Additional layers in the forgotten history of commercial intelligence

As part of our continuing interest in the privatization of intelligence, we have sought to surface a number of long forgotten antecedents to the modern incarnation of professional intelligence activities that were conducted in both the early government contracting environment and the purely commercial world. Through this research we have come to believe strongly that the prevalent conception underlying many of the current controversies over privatization is based an inaccurate perception; namely that intelligence is historically (and some argue, only the proper) province of the state monopolies which emerged from World WWII until the immediate post Cold War era.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. History in this case has been written by the official agencies, and as a result the wider community beyond the wheel has largely been downplayed or entirely left out. While this may have helped to build the necessary mythology to cement organizational culture in the early years of many a new government agency, it is unhelpful from the perspective of professionalization - and even moreso when attempting to understand the dynamics of resurgent privatized intelligence activities. This has also led to a number of significant fallacies in recent discussions regarding the current state and future trends of the field, most notably in academia.

We continue to find indicators in support of our case. We have identified commercial intelligence units with histories dating back as far the contemporary literature of “official” intelligence itself, and have traced the evolution of terminology and duties throughout the decades. Some of this research has previously appeared in these pages.

To this evidence we would add the following commercial intelligence activities which also ought not to be lost to time, identified in brief references throughout a number of texts buried in the forgotten archives.

  • An intelligence office of the National Insurance Convention of the United States, proposed in 1871 to track fraud and risk from New York offices, as a fee based service for the industry as a whole. This effort no doubt was intended to provide an American alternative to the famous and longstanding intelligence service operated by Lloyd’s of London.
  • The Commercial Intelligence Department of the Associated Trade and Industrial Press in Washington DC, established in 1885 and referenced in multiple publications from 1896 to 1899 advertising its intelligence products for sale. These included a “neatly type-written” list of the “leading hardware dealers in Mexico, Central and South American countries” that had been “compiled from first sources”, available at a cost of 5s.
  • An Intelligence Department of the English Fisheries Board, referenced in 1886, whose services included “weekly statistics of the fishing-industry, the appearance and disappearance of certain fish at particular spots, the number of fishing-boats employed, the methods of fishing employed, and the meteorological condition”
  • A “Special Intelligence Report” on the “Progress of the Work on the Panama Canal during 1885”, published in 1887. Among this product’s consumers were the American Geographical Society of New York and the Institution of Civil Engineers in Great Britain
  • The biography of the Managing Editor for a publication entitled “Commercial Intelligence” from 1898 to 1903
  • The Commercial Intelligence Section of the Canadian Manufacturer’s Association, referenced in 1904
  • An Intelligence Department of the American Electric Railway Association, referenced in 1915 as part of the claims organization
  • An unnamed “commercial intelligence firm in the Netherlands” identified in an advertisement published in 1920, seeking information regarding mahogany and oak lumber exporters.
  • The Chicago Intelligence Bureau Inc., advertised in 1922 after having been founded by three former “newspapermen”
  • An otherwise unidentified Market Intelligence Service at Montreal, referenced in 1925
  • The Intelligence Department of Midlands Bank in the United Kingdom, first identified in the obituary of its founder in 1926 and subsequently referenced in multiple publications from 1951 to 1956
  • The Commercial Intelligence Department of the Imperial Bank of Canada, referenced in 1947
  • The appointment of a Market Intelligence Officer at the Gas Council in the United Kingdom, announced in 1968
  • The appointment of a Market Intelligence Manager at International Janitor, Ltd. announced in 1968
  • The Economic Intelligence Department of Bank of London and South Africa, referenced in 1967, 1971 and 1972
  • Economic Intelligence Department of Norges Bank, referenced in 1981
  • A “Market Intelligence Center” in Taiwan, referenced in 1988
  • An Intelligence Department at the Salvage Association in the United Kingdom, referenced in 1989

None of the activities of these groups are entirely unfamiliar to the modern eye. While many primarily involved the collection and dissemination of basic and current intelligence often without any further analysis, one must remember that so too did most contemporaneous government intelligence activities of the day – a style of production that persisted largely unchanged until the 1950’s (and continues even to this day in a number of shops in both government and corporate practice).

The fundamental business models of privatized intelligence are also visible in this history, whether in the form of pay for product, subscription, industry association, or corporate department. The success – or failure – of certain variants over others (as clearly indicated by prevalence and longevity) points towards some of the core determinants which shaped the contemporary market for intelligence . One can argue that the same dynamics impacted even the (comparatively) distorted market within the state level monopolies, but that is a discussion for another day.

There are no doubt reams of documentation as yet uncovered, particularly within the larger of these institutions which remain extant, and within the archives that may have passed into the hands of libraries and university collections. This is a mine for fundamental research in the intelligence field that has yet to be fully tapped. There is no doubt that it will be the future source of much value in the literature of intelligence.

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