Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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9/22/2006
10:47 AM
Sharon Gaudin
Sharon Gaudin
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Where Did HP Cross The Line?

It's been another week of revelations about Hewlett-Packard's investigation into media leaks. Another week of unflattering details about illicit spying tactics, phony personas to dupe the press, and even e-mail tampering. With everything that HP reportedly did in its zealous probe to find a media leak, exactly where did company executives cross the line? How big is the gray area of what's legal and what's ethical? And what's just way over the line?

It's been another week of revelations about Hewlett-Packard's investigation into media leaks. Another week of unflattering details about illicit spying tactics, phony personas to dupe the press, and even e-mail tampering.

With everything that HP reportedly did in its zealous probe to find a media leak, exactly where did company executives cross the line? How big is the gray area of what's legal and what's ethical? And what's just way over the line?All the news that came out this week just isn't boding well for HP.

Both the California Attorney General's office and the U.S. Attorney's Office are investigating the intelligence scheme. You know there's trouble when both state officials and the feds are beating the bushes to file their own charges. This isn't a case where one prosecutor's office is calling the other to say, "No, no. You take this one." They both want a piece of this pie. And since some say there are both state and federal statutes that might have been broken, both may have an opportunity for a slice.

And the stock market, while it turned a blind eye to HP's troubles for some time, finally weighed in on what has been happening with this industry giant. On Thursday, HP's stock fell 5.19% after news came out about Hurd's involvement and the company announced plans for a press conference, but just before it reported that the SEC has asked for information about the investigation and subsequent resignation of one of HP's board members. However, the company had a better day on Friday, when shares were up 24 cents, or .69%, at the close of the regular session.

On top of all this, HP executives have been called to Washington on Thursday, Sept. 28, to testify in front of the U.S. House of Energy and Commerce Committee. The committee has been investigating the issue of pretexting since this past February, and HP was gracious enough to throw them a real bone to chew on. Now Congress has a specific target, and not just some vague idea, to sink its teeth into. (And by the way, I'm more than a little tired of the term "pretexting." Let's just call it what it is: stealing personal, confidential information by posing to be someone else. We can also call it fraud, lying, cheating...take your pick. Pretexting must be a marketing term, meant to put a positive spin on a negative action.)

So where did HP executives cross the line?

I interviewed some ethics and privacy pundits for a story on this, and some say there's a wide swath of gray area here. If a CEO or other exec believes there's a leak in his or her boardroom, of course they're going to want to find that leak and plug the hole. But how far do you go to do it? HP was well within its rights, both legally and ethically most would agree, to go over the records of calls made within HP's walls or that were made with HP-issued cell phones. It also could have checked incoming and outgoing e-mail from machines it issued to employees. If the company owns the equipment, the phone lines, or the network being used, it has every right to see what's happening on it.

It's even legal to send flunkies out to go dumpster diving to see if employees, or even members of the press, were throwing out anything interesting in regards to the leak. As long as no one trespasses, going through someone's garbage is free game.

But how do you feel about everything else HP did? Where is the line for you? The privacy and ethics people I talked to say execs crossed the line when they started masquerading as other people to obtain personal phone records. They crossed the line when they put tracers on e-mails to see who someone outside the company would forward that message on to.

But you're the ones in the real world. How common is this? Has your company ever asked you to do something you were uncomfortable with? If they did, how did you handle it? How far do you think a company can go, ethically if not legally, to plug a leak? I hear there are some blogs and message boards out there saying HP was justified in its actions. It's a dog-eat-dog world when it comes to business in the big leagues, and HP was just doing what had to be done.

But is that really the case? Where do you draw the line?

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