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Use of identity theft to reveal sources under investigation

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Identity theft has emerged as a threat to reporters as the latest details of the events surrounding Hewlett-Packard’s dysfunctional boardroom are revealed. Company chairwoman Patricia Dunn and HP’s top lawyer have been called to testify to the US House Energy and Commerce Committee about the phone records used to identify board members who were leaking to the media.

The California attorney general, the Justice Department and the FBI are also investigating the impersonation used by a private detective employed by the company to obtain the records, according to Bloomberg.

To recap, affairs at HP came to a head in January last year when The Wall Street Journal reported on a management reshuffle that would shift responsibility from the deeply unpopular chief executive Carly Fiorina. It quoted “people familiar with the situation”. She left two weeks later.

Since then things have gone from bad-to-worse for the company. The latest revelation has been the use of what is called “pretexting”, pretending to be someone else to obtain phone, or other, records. They wanted to know who was talking to reporters.

The Society of American Business Editors and Writers also joined in yesterday with a statement condemning the company. Kelly Fiveash reports at The Register on a threat to the freedom of the press. The SABEW statement said:

Such actions have a chilling effect on the journalistic process and thereby do harm to the public, investors and all of us who rely on the free flow of information.

Such actions also compromise a reporter’s ability to talk freely with sources. Sources in sensitive situations may fear retribution if their bosses, or other possible adversaries, could easily steal the phone records of inquiring reporters.

Unfortunately, I doubt if this will stop others attempting to follow the HP example. Sensible reporters will be thinking about dark car parks or, at least, anonymous mobile phones.

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