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A Big Snoop

Some news about Hewlett-Packard today has some business professors sounding a lot like journalistic ethicists. The company had hired private investigators to uncover the source of leaks to the press … and it turns out that the investigators also "accessed private phone records of nine journalists who covered the company, without obtaining their permission," writes The Washington Post. According to The New York Times:
"The company said this week that its board had hired private investigators to identify directors leaking information to the press and that those investigators had posed as board members — a technique known as pretexting — to gain access to their personal phone records.

"In acknowledging Thursday that journalists' records had also been obtained, the company said it was apologizing to each one. 'H.P. is dismayed that the phone records of journalists were accessed without their knowledge,' a company spokesman, Michael Moeller, said."

Accessing personal records through computers without permission is a violation of California law, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, whose office is investigating, told The Washington Post. The paper noted that Lockyer "called the accessing of journalists' phone records 'stupid cubed.'"
Lockyer told The Times: "'A crime was committed.' But he added: 'It is unclear how strong the case is. Who is charged and for what is still an open question.'"

The San Francisco Gate snagged a management professor from Santa Clara University to comment on the matter. Shawn Berman "called Hewlett-Packard's behavior Big Brother-like and said that the scope of its board's mismanagement is breathtaking.

'I've seen this whole saga as really pushing the frontier as to what's acceptable in the world of ethics,' he said. 'I don't think there's any board that has spied on its own members and private citizens.'

Berman added that Hewlett-Packard's actions -- if ever commonplace among companies -- would put a chill on journalism.

'If we are going to take away from the ability to keep sources private, then that kneecaps a reporter's ability to do the job.'

With reporters from various news outlets identified as among those whose records were accessed – including The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—this is a story that will likely gain some steam among media watchers. But it should also gain traction among privacy advocates. The Post heard from a few who were rearing to take Congress to task: "Congress has been myopic at looking at this as a phone records issue," said Robert Douglas, a privacy consultant. "It's much broader: It's utility records, bank records, medical records, cable and satellite TV records -- all of American consumers' records."
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