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The danger of leaking cell numbers

May 05, 2007 12:37 IST
Are you, like me, disturbed several times a day by a string of cell phone calls and text messages offering products, services and information that you don't need? Loans, credit cards, club memberships and sundry offers, from ring tones to special discounts, in a barrage of incomprehensible accents and useless beeps that make you want to hurl the handy object out of the window.

Disturb is perhaps too mild a word when you consider the contents of some of the messages received: from party propaganda to scurrilous rumour, lurid proposition to dangerous threat. Intrusion is more often the case. And when the intrusions are repeated and reckless they add up to something else. Elsewhere in the world they would invite a flurry of invasion-of-privacy suits.

Who actually is leaking millions of private cell phone numbers to providers of unsolicited services? Clearly, it must be the cell phone companies themselves, either because of lucrative marketing alliances with banks, hotels, insurance companies and suchlike or because, it is rumoured, leaked lists that sold profitably.

Either way, obtaining private numbers and circulating them without permission is a criminal act. It has lately been the subject of a complex and long-drawn-out scandal that has rocked corporate US hitting one of the giants of Silicon Valley, Hewlett-Packard, a computer technology firm with revenue of more than $90 billion.

The battle began in 2006, when the chairman of Hewlett-Packard's board, Patricia Dunn, decided to launch a secret investigation into who was leaking high-level information about the company to the Press-sometimes decisions taken by board members at private retreats. Was it senior company executives who had been passed over in promotions? Or others who had left unhappily? Or could it be members of the board with an axe to grind? With the help of in-house security managers and lawyers she gave the job to an outside investigating firm, which, in turn, hired subcontractors to locate private phone records of journalists.

These were done through a variety of ruses: 'pretexting', or orally obtaining phone numbers from, say, switchboard operators while pretending to be someone else, or, even more elaborately, by creating fictional identities of so-called 'disgruntled' H-P employees, who made e-mail
contact with journalists. By pretending to be anonymous H-P sources
passing on inside information, the idea was to obtain cell numbers of journalists publishing the stories. Titled Kona I and Kona II, the company's 'surveillance activity' and 'covert intelligence-gathering operations' into media leaks became so complex that The New Yorker, which published a 14-page account in a recent issue of how a huge corporation
went to war with itself, says it sounds 'like a parody of a le Carre novel.'

It came to a sticky end, of course. The crisis in the company hinged on a basic question: the legality or illegality of obtaining and monitoring cell numbers or email IDs by covert means. This question divided H-P's board. The board's most senior and powerful member, Silicon Valley's legendary Tom Perkins, resigned and threatened to sue because his personal phone records were 'hacked'. Company Chairman Patricia Dunn was pilloried in the Press as 'The Boss Who Spied on Her Board' and forced to quit.

Even if passing on people's personal phone numbers in some situations can be deemed legal, is it right? After all, H-P's chairman had the support of her board and senior executives to carry out the investigation into the Press leaks. The problem arose with the means by which some of those numbers and email IDs were obtained and monitored-or 'hacked'. This is patently illegal.

Despite warnings by the Supreme Court that unwarranted sales pitching on cell phones is illegal, no one has tested its widespread misuse in court. This has to happen in a country said to be the fastest-growing cell phone market in the world. The malpractice is actually in obtaining private umbers and placing them in the public domain. I am only too happy to join ssue with anyone willing to do battle.

Sunil Sethi in New Delhi