Dunn is booked in `pretext' case

Privacy concerns raised over HP tactics

October 06, 2006|By James S. Granelli, Charles Piller and Jim Puzzanghera | James S. Granelli, Charles Piller and Jim Puzzanghera,Los Angeles Times

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Former Hewlett-Packard Co. Chairman Patricia C. Dunn surrendered to authorities yesterday as privacy experts worried that the alleged illegal spying she ordered is only a glimpse at how big business can view personal records.

"What we're looking at is the fruit of decades of allowing these kind of privacy concerns to get very low, if any, priority," said Lauren Weinstein, founder of the Privacy Forum education and outreach group in Los Angeles. "Perhaps this is best viewed as sort of a harbinger of much worse to come."

HP's spying scandal - in which private investigators gathered confidential phone records in their efforts to find the source of boardroom media leaks - has focused attention on privacy the way debacles at Enron Corp. and WorldCom Inc. shone a light on accounting practices.

"For working Americans in 2001, the scandal surrounding Enron challenged their trust in the markets," said Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat. "The HP scandal is shattering their expectations of telecommunications privacy."

Dunn and others ensnared by the allegations testified last week before a House committee that featured blistering indictments of the company's tactics by members of Congress.

A week to the day after her Capitol Hill testimony, Dunn braved a phalanx of some two dozen news cameras at the Santa Clara County Superior Court building for her first appearance after the state filed felony charges against her and four others.

In less than five minutes, she agreed to the terms of her release on recognizance and to return Nov. 17 for her arraignment, where she is expected to plead not guilty. She was then booked next door at the sheriff's department. She and one of her lawyers, S. Raj Chatterjee, declined to comment.

Dunn and her co-defendants are accused of conspiracy, identity theft and violations of two other state laws in overseeing and operating a corporate investigation. The internal probe was aimed at finding out who divulged boardroom discussions to the media.

Santa Clara University law professor Stephen Diamond said he was "reluctant to jump to the conclusion" that the HP case portends serious privacy concerns elsewhere. But, he pointed out, "the culture in most corporations is, if it comes from the CEO or the chairman, everybody snaps to attention. That's what the HP legal department did here."

Stanford University law professor Robert Weisberg said he sees the issue as the law needing time to catch up to new ways that "sleazy people" invent to invade privacy.

"You could say, `What could people be thinking? How could they be so foolish?'" he said. "But people will always find ways to be foolish again, just in different ways than HP did."

To that end, privacy advocates want to expand the legal protections for personal information.

"We'd like a law that could say that phone records and all commercial records containing personal information should be kept private," said Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that goes into effect Jan. 1 to make it illegal to impersonate customers to obtain phone records.

Earlier yesterday, Kevin T. Hunsaker, HP's former senior counsel in charge of the investigation, turned himself in at a sheriff's substation for booking and was released pending arraignment Nov. 17.

James S. Granelli, Charles Piller and Jim Puzzanghera write for the Los Angeles Times.

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