Big Brother in Gray Flannel

August 23, 1991

Is Big Brother running amok via the computer? The saga of Proctor & Gamble versus the Wall Street Journal has us wondering. In June, the Journal ran two stories on the forced resignation of P&G's food products chief. Four days after the second story, P&G called in the cops.

It didn't hurt that one P&G part-timer was a police detective; he headed the probe. Prosecutors issued subpoenas for files on 803,849 phones in Ohio and Kentucky to trace 40 million long-distance calls. Probers were looking for calls to the Journal's Pittsburgh bureau, its fax machine and the home of a reporter to find her sources.

Those fearful of computers' potential to invade the privacy of ordinary citizens saw their paranoia vindicated with the revelation that such sophisticated parsing of phone records was possible.

Legal observers say the law Cincinnati's authorities used, a catch-all to help thwart industrial espionage, is overly broad. The law bars any employee from furnishing or disclosing confidential information. Moreover, the subpoena netted records on everyone in the area who might have had occasion to call the newspaper. It reached beyond Cincinnati into its Ohio and Kentucky suburbs.

Neither prosecutors nor the phone company notified the newspaper, which might have challenged the subpoena. Ohio has a strong law protecting reporters from revealing their sources, but the criminal statute was used to get around that.

No prime suspect turned up. Instead, suspicion centers on the behavior of P&G and Cincinnati authorities. If unflattering reportage hurt P&G, acting like Big Brother hurts everyone even more.

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