In the dictionary, snooping is defined as "to investigate or look around furtively in an attempt to find out something, especially information about someone's private affairs. The word itself derives from the Dutch snoepen, which literally means "to eat furtively."

In common parlance it is intelligence gathering or spying by prying. Wiretaps or eavesdropping on telephone conversations or data transmissions, are just a means for gathering information about a real or potential adversary or competitor. In a world where information is power, snooping is quite generic and even friends are not exempted. Governments snoop on each other.

Governments snoop on citizens and vice versa. Citizens snoop on each other. Spouses on spouses. Business people on others. Companies on executives. The USA on pretty much everybody.

The air is teeming with information, noise. The trick is to get enough useful signals from it. The signal to noise ratio is usually very low. But we have high speed and high powered supercomputers to pull out gems from the ether. Recall how a snatch of mobile phone conversation between a low level Al Qaeda courier and a former colleague after relentless snooping led to Osama bin Laden's lair in Abbottabad. See 'Zero Dark Thirty'. It is pretty much how it played out.

The CIA ( Central Intelligence Agency) was discovered to be listening in on former German Chancellor Angela Merkel among other heads of allied governments. Ironically, when the proposal to set up a departmental intelligence service was first mooted in the United States of America, the then Secretary of State Henry Stimson, dismissed it with a minute "gentlemen do not read each other's mail."

But soon, World War 2 was overhead and the US set up a dedicated intelligence service, the OSS ( Office of Strategic Services), the forerunner to the CIA.. Obviously Herr Hitler was not considered a gentleman.

Snooping on other nations is now considered a fairly honourable and glorified profession, with intelligence officers and spymasters projecting a certain cachet of adventure and power. However honourable it may be, spying is nevertheless illegal and even allies do not merit exemption.

Take the case of Jonathan Pollard who was apprehended in 1987 while serving at the US Navy's Center for Naval Analyses, passing on classified information to its closest ally, Israel. Pollard was recently released from a US jail after being locked in for nearly 40 years, despite repeated entreaties from its foremost partner in crime, Israel. The lessons of history are clear. Spy or snoop by all means, but don't get caught. People don't like being snooped. The law is clear. You get caught, you get punished.

Technologically we have come some way since the days of close quarter spying like physically listening in. Wiretaps are often not needed. We now have standoff snooping. With modern technological means you can literally pluck information from the air. Remember the implicating conversation General Pervez Musharaff had with his generals from Beijing and how Prime Minister Vajpayee happily gave President Clinton the audio recording? This equipment is now available to private snoops also. Israeli business people regularly visit India to hawk their wares.

Many modern Indian corporations are now behemoths, often with interests and characteristics like states. That's why corporate groups like Reliance, Tata, and others maintain "intelligence" capabilities to snoop on each other and on the state. They also provide gainful employment to many retired intelligence and counterintelligence officers.

Like our overseas RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) officers are euphemistically called consular officers, corporate sleuths are usually nomenclatured as security advisors, ostensibly to ring fence the companies against external snooping. But in reality the expertise is directed to ferreting information of much use to the corporate bosses.

Quite often these security advisors reach into their former organisations with blandishments to get their former colleagues to use their positions to pry for their corporate interests. In a free economic regime not dependent on the allocation powers of the state, and in a competitive environment, competitive advantage is due to technical innovation and superior service. Hence knowledge is power. In a crony capitalist system information is power. That's why our companies invest more in garnering information rather than in pursuing knowledge.

Some years ago the media obtained recordings that revealed that senior Tata Tea executives were in constant touch with the underground ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom ) and were making payoffs for protection. Not so long ago the now nearly defunct Essar was found allegedly channelling money to Naxalites in Bastar to let them continue to excavate iron ore unhindered. Even more recently we were treated to implicating conversations Tata and RIL lobbyist, Nira Radia, was having with Delhi's political and media elite.

The airing of these recordings were considered to be to the advantage of Anil Ambani, who had adversarial relations with the corporate bosses concerned. The DAG (Dhirubhai Ambani Group) officials and advisors, among them a former US Embassy hand, had a hand in obtaining and disseminating these.

Then there were the salacious Amar Singh recordings, full of details of money making and private intimacies with well known industrialists, former actor and Member of Parliament and others as key players in various acts of the drama.

This was considered the revenge of the empire.