WikiLeaks 2.0: Time to be afraid?

February 27, 2012, 8:55 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Just hours after WikiLeaks started publishing the 5 million emails it says come from the global-intelligence publisher Stratfor, it’s becoming clear that this data dump could have a much larger impact than WikiLeaks’ earlier publication of thousands of diplomatic cables. Those cables revealed, for the most part, mere gossip and mundane, low-level chatter. But the Stratfor emails could be explosive for companies, governments and individuals around the world, not least for Stratfor itself. Or they might not. At the very least, this batch of data seems far more interesting.

In the short term, it appears that the public-relations departments of many companies are going to be clocking a lot of overtime hours. In the longer term, much depends on what is revealed in the coming couple of weeks. The emails show Stratfor employees in discussions with executives at client firms, which include some of the biggest multinational corporations on the planet. So far, only a few hundred emails have been posted. If there are no ticking bombs, the forthcoming information at the very least promises to be interesting. The authenticity of the emails hasn’t been verified in all cases, but according to some of the messages thus far:

  • Stratfor employees in May 2011 discussed the possibility that Wachovia’s involvement in laundering the money of Mexican drug cartels could run deeper and involve more money than was already known, and that an investigation of the bank was continuing. According to the purported email of a Stratford employee to some of his colleagues, one of his “CIA cronies” had told him that Wachovia was the subject of an “ongoing investigation.” Wachovia, now owned by Wells Fargo (WFC) as it was when this discussion took place, settled the case against it  without admitting wrongdoing. Wachovia in 2010 forfeited $110 million and was fined another $50 million.
  • Coca-Cola (KO) in 2009 asked Stratfor to gather information on the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, according to another purported email discussion. The company was worried about possible protest activity during the Winter Olympics in Vancouver the following year.
  • Stratfor gathered intelligence on the anti-corporate agitprop group The Yes Men on behalf of Dow Chemical (DOW), as shown by several discussions among Stratfor and Dow employees and others, according to WikiLeaks. The company was worried about activism on the 25th anniversary of the 1984 Bhopal disaster.
  • Perhaps most striking, at least for Statfor itself, is the revelation that the company was planning to create a fund, called StratCap, through which it would trade on intelligence information it gathered. An email purportedly written by George Friedman, Stratfor’s founder and chairman, said the fund “would allow us to utilize the intelligence we were gathering about the world in a new but related venue — an investment fund. Where we had previously advised other hedge funds, we would now have our own…” Involved in that discussion was Shea Morenz, then with Goldman Sachs (GS). Friedman wrote, according to WikiLeaks, “What StratCap will do is use our intelligence and analysis to trade in a range of geopolitical instruments, particularly government bonds, currencies and the like.” Morenz invested, according to the email, “substantially” more than $4 million.

Beyond the fact that the authenticity of the emails has not yet been confirmed, the mere fact of such a data dump poses all kinds of potential problems. The emails are just sitting there, uncommented upon, with no context or interpretation given. The emails about Coke and PETA, for example, sound somewhat sinister judging by the WikiLeaks headline, “Coca Cola Contracting Stratfor to Spy on Peta.” But it’s common practice for companies to gather information on groups that might cause them PR problems, and the information Coke sought in this case seems fairly mundane: How strong is Peta in Canada? Might U.S. Peta activists travel to Vancouver? It’s not clear what if anything Stratfor found out or what, if anything, was done about any information that it gathered. What’s most striking is that a Stratfor employee purportedly wrote toward the end of the discussions: “The FBI has a classified investigation on PETA operatives. I’ll see what I can uncover.”

It’s not at all clear that any laws were broken by these activities. Dow Chemical has issued a statement on the Yes Men matter:

“Major companies, including Dow, are often required to take appropriate action to protect their people and safeguard their facilities around the world from those who would threaten, disrupt and misrepresent the company and its employees.  Dow takes the obligations to ensure the safety of its people and facilities seriously and will continue to do so within the bounds of the law. We are strong proponents of free speech and encourage public debate on important issues. However, while we have not yet seen the specific documents in question, the theft of any private documents cannot be condoned.”

WikiLeaks says it has partnerships with 25 media companies to disseminate the emails. That includes two partners in the United States: McClatchy Newspapers and Rolling Stone magazine. So far, neither partner has published anything about the emails, leaving journalists and others to scramble to make sense out of the enormous amount of raw information.

Stratfor’s computers were invaded late last year apparently by the hacker/vandal group Anonymous (specifically, by its AntiSec wing), which revealed personal information such as credit-card data and email addresses of thousands of Stratfor customers. It seems likely that the emails posted by WikiLeaks came from that intrusion, though WikiLeaks isn’t saying where it got them.

Stratfor issued a statement calling the publication of the emails “a deplorable, unfortunate — and illegal– breach of privacy.”

“Some of the emails may be forged or altered to include inaccuracies; some may be authentic,” the statement continued. “We will not validate either. Nor will we explain the thinking that went into them. Having had our property stolen, we will not be victimized twice by submitting to questioning about them.”