There's ample evidence that Bank of America has suffered more damage to its reputation than its peers since the financial crisis, and it still endures high levels of consumer animosity -- even as the bank begins to regain the trust of investors.
Some recent news isn't likely to polish the bank's image with the general public. Several emails revealed earlier this month suggest Bank of America has made a habit of monitoring the activities of citizen activist groups that don't agree with the bank's way of doing business.
A sordid tale of hyperbole
The information was released via a public records request in Washington state, and the requestor then posted the emails online. The series of communications address preparations being made among law enforcement organizations ahead of last November's "Million Mask March" on Olympia, Wash., an event organized by the group Anonymous. Starting the ball rolling is an email from the vice president of global corporate security for Bank of America, a former member of the Washington State Patrol.
It appears the bank's security VP, Kim Triplett-Kolerich, wanted to have another intelligence-sharing event with her former colleagues, noting that a prior "Public-Private Partnership" the year before worked out well. She also mentioned that surveillance-savvy B of A has a team of 20 employees whose sole job is to pore over social media sites, looking for "intel" about "Anarchists or Occupy Protesters."
Weeks of planning followed, as Triplett-Kolerich, the Washington State Patrol, and other agencies got their ducks in a row to ready themselves for a march of approximately 250 people. Ultimately, only about 100 showed up, and there were no problems.
Not the first time Bank of America has played the spy game
As evidence of "spying" by Bank of America, this example may seem pretty low-key, but the bank has a history of vigilant behavior. Back in 2009, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claimed to have a 5 GB sample of juicy data from a B of A executive's computer, and in 2010, he said the site had more goodies that would cause a major U.S. bank big trouble. Bank of America, shortly thereafter, said it was not the bank in question, though Assange never mentioned which institution he meant.
In early 2011, it was revealed that a triad of data security companies -- Berico Technologies, HBGary Federal, and Palantir Technologies -- had worked up a proposal to help Bank of America discredit WikiLeaks via various machinations, one of which was a planned attempt to sully the reputation of a Salon.com columnist. The proposal was solicited by the law firm of Hunton & Williams, which is in the employ of Bank of America. The firm also asked the three companies for a similar proposal on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce, another entity being hounded by critics.
In the end, none of the information WikiLeaks purportedly possessed ever saw the light of day. In August 2011, Assange's former co-spokesman told Reuters he had destroyed a gaggle of material the site had regarding Bank of America -- including the mysterious 5 GB drive.
Well, so much for that, you might say -- but Bank of America did not rest easy. Last February, a group within Anonymous publicized 14 GB of data gleaned from an Israeli server, which purported to show reams of information scraped from the corners of the Internet where enemies of the bank apparently lurk. These areas -- scrutinized by a Bank of America contractor called TEKsystems -- included social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and, according to Anonymous, were essentially useless sources of information.
What is it that Bank of America is so concerned activists might discover? The bank is no Boy Scout, certainly. But after the humdingers revealed last year, like allegations that the bank encouraged staff to deceive troubled homeowners attempting to modify their underwater loans, what else could there be? We may never find out, but it is surely something for investors to chew on.