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HP obtained reporters' phone records to find sources

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CALIFORNIA   ·   Privacy   ·   Sep. 11, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CALIFORNIA   ·   Privacy   ·   Sep. 11, 2006

HP obtained reporters’ phone records to find sources

  • The debate over journalist confidentiality took an unexpected turn last week when Hewlett-Packard Co. admitted that private investigators accessed journalists’ phone records in order to uncover an anonymous source.

Sep. 11, 2006  ·   Top Hewlett-Packard Co. officials and private investigators could face criminal charges for illegally obtaining the phone records of several reporters and HP directors, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said last week.

In a Securities and Exchange Committee filing dated Aug. 1, the computer and software giant conceded its investigators had used “pretexting” — calling a company and impersonating someone to obtain that person’s records or information — in order to identify the source of news articles containing private information about the company.

Lockyer told reporters that such methods are illegal, and said company officials and private investigators could be charged and prosecuted. He has declined to specify possible charges due to the ongoing investigation.

CNET reporters Dawn Kawamoto and Tom Krazit cited an anonymous source in their Jan. 23 article about the annual HP management retreat at a California resort. In that article, the source spoke about the company’s acquisition strategy and upcoming product changes, as well as the day-to-day happenings of the retreat.

Because of this inside knowledge, HP Chairman Patricia Dunn suspected that the source was a board member and ordered a private investigation into the source’s identity, according to news reports. After receiving the results of the investigation, Dunn named director George Keyworth as the source at a May 18 HP board of directors meeting. Keyworth has not been renominated for his board position.

In total, HP’s investigators obtained telephone records of at least nine journalists and several HP board members by pretext and impersonation. Targeted reporters included John Markoff of The New York Times; Pui-Wing Tam and George Anders of The Wall Street Journal; Peter Burrows, Ben Elgin and Roger Crockett of BusinessWeek; and Kawamoto, Krazit and Stephen Shankland of CNET, according to those news organizations. Investigators also accessed telephone records for Shankland’s father, Thomas Shankland of Los Alamos, N.M., for reasons that remain unknown.

Dunn said in a public statement Thursday that she had no knowledge of investigators’ questionable methods.

The use of phone records to uncover sources is not a new tactic. Just last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago (2nd) decided New York Times Co. v. Gonzales, in which a federal prosecutor subpoenaed the phone records of two journalists in order to uncover the identity of their sources. The court found that the reporters’ phone records were not protected from a grand jury subpoena by any reporter’s privilege or shield law.

While much of the debate about confidential sources has centered on shield laws and government actions, the HP investigations have demonstrated that private companies may also try to learn the identities of journalists’ sources without involving the government. In these situations, journalists and their sources cannot rely on shield laws to protect confidentiality since most shield laws simply protect a journalist’s right to withhold his or her testimony in court.


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