Where did Hewlett-Packard get the idea illegal spying was OK?

by Andrew Oram

This was originally published on O’Reilly Media’s Strata blog, October 5, 2006.

Now it's official--or at least one more step toward being official. California has indicted five former HP managers for trying to get private email and phone records of board members. Officially, of course, the indicted managers are innocent until proven guilty. And finding them guilty of law-breaking will be hard, because one has to interpret existing laws broadly to cover pretexting and other shuffling through electronic records. But the ethics--or lack thereof--displayed should make all of us who work in large organizations worry.

As an isolated case, it all seems so pointless. HP has been a success story of which most computer companies should be envious. The bone of contention among board members that was the subject of the spying--Carly Fiorina's leadership--was over and done with, the moment she was fired. The new management, which are the ones under indictment had no good reason for continuing their quest for answers. And the underlying issue that prompted the disagreements in the first place--the purchase of Compaq--had been resolved in their favor long ago. I suspect that, behind the impulse to find out who leaked board discussions to the press, lies a pathological need for control that is completely out of sync with modern business innovation.

When faced with such a breech of trust, such deliberative courting of dishonor, one has to look at the atmosphere set by the society around.

Look around, and you can see the environment in which violations such as HP's seem natural. There's one important distinction in HP's case: the managers who were discovered to be committing the ethical violations were fired from their positions, and may face criminal penalties.

But even this kind of reckoning is at risk if current conditions continue. One can already see where the spin is traveling, as one of the defendant's lawyers "argued that the tactic of pretexting is legitimate because law enforcement officials have encouraged its use by hiring outside investigators to obtain private records." (Boston Globe) Someday, CEOs caught red-handed will say, "If the law prohibits what I'm doing, just change the law."

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