Hi-Tech Dumpster Diving

The notion of trashing your competitor apparently has taken on new meaning in the wake of a bitter rivalry between Microsoft Corp., Seattle, and Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif. Oracle has admitted that it hired a prominent Washington, D.C., detective agency to investigate certain pro-Microsoft organizations. These organizations, which claimed to be independent, were attempting to manipulate public opinion against the government's antitrust Microsoft suit.

Oracle's acknowledgement followed stories in New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, linking the private eyes to failed efforts to buy garbage from cleaning workers at the offices of the Association for Competitive Technology, Washington, D.C. However, the detective firm did uncover documents elsewhere showing that Microsoft financially supported two similar groups. Documents from pro-Microsoft organizations were cited in several newspaper articles.

"We did, however, insist that whatever methods [the agency] employed must be legal," said an Oracle spokesman, who added that the agency gave the company such assurances.

For its part, the agency declined to discuss the case, but its chairman stated that the firm "abides by a rigorous code of ethics and conducts all of its investigations in a lawful manner."

The association's president stated that he was considering legal action on what he called a violation of his employees' privacy in the trash caper.

Ironically, Microsoft also admits to rifling through another firm's trash. In 1993, according to court records, Microsoft hired an investigator who joined a police raid on a company under suspicion for pirating Microsoft products. The investigator picked through the company's trash, finding a number of important documents that Microsoft later produced in court.

Snooping on business rivals seems to be part of doing business everywhere. Respectable corporate detectives, who, for the record, refer to "dumpster diving" as shameful, nevertheless engage in discreet trash raids now and then. Meanwhile, no bright lines mark the ethical and legal limits.

Picking through garbage left out in a public area may be legal if the waste generator has no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the discarded items. However, entering an enclosed area to take a trash bin's contents could be considered burglary. Someone who is caught paying money to a janitor or a municipal employee for access to trash could be prosecuted for commercial or official bribery.

Some firms "just say no." Companies that have been offered trade secrets from rivals have handed back information and disclosed the identities of the individuals making the offer, according to a Houston security consultant.

Federal prosecutors say that the most crucial evidence against Microsoft came from documents and e-mail furnished by the company itself - not from competitors.

Would anyone have believed that the battle between the high-tech giants Oracle and Microsoft would be fought with old fashioned paper trash?