Town Square

Use of ‘pretexting’ by HP is way out of line

Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Sep 7, 2006

The chairman of the board of Hewlett-Packard, Patricia Dunn, worried about boardroom leaks to the media, decided to hire a firm to get the cell and landline phone records of HP board members to see if she could determine who “leaked” information to the press, particularly the Wall Street Journal. The firm used a technique called “pretexting” – calling the phone company and pretending to be someone else in order to get the board that person’s phone records.

On Wednesday, an HP spokesman defended Dunn’s actions, saying such leaks to the media are inappropriate and out of line, hence the investigation into the personal phone calls of board members.

I disagree with the defense. This was an ethical misjudgment by Dunn, to say the least, an inappropriate invasion of privacy, and perhaps an illegal act.

If I was on the HP board, I would be absolutely outraged. Serving on any board or commission simply does not entitle the chairman or any other corporate official to try to determine under pretext who I talked to every day.

I am not defending the leaks to the media, although I can’t get too upset about them. The more important issue here is the invasion of privacy.

You might ask what’s wrong with getting the phone records of board members — after all, someone on the board was leaking information to the press.

A lot is wrong. The end doesn’t justify the means. Even if I serve on a board, whether it’s HP, the Red Cross, or a city planning commission, no corporation and no government, in my estimation, has the right to surreptitiously find out who I call and talk to each day— and who calls me — especially from my home or my personal cell phone. Our rights to privacy are an inherent part of our civil liberties in this country.

In this age of wiretapping of Americans by the federal government, it may be a right we really need to fight to protect.


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Posted by Howard
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2006 at 10:39 pm

The Board knew that they were being investigated, and approved that investigation. Perkins was the biggest cheerleader, suggesting that everyone on the board be given lie detector tests. It was only after his golfing buddy on the board turned out to be the culprit that he suddenly feigned outrage at the investigation. Pretexting is not illegal (except perhaps under some stretch of some unrelated statute cooked up by the attorney general to get headlines), and in these circumstances it is not unethical to so target the board. Pretexting the reporters is another story, and was a mistake. But other than apologizing to the reporters, which has been done, HP should not back down.