HP targeted reporters before they published

The personal phone records of two News.com reporters were targeted prior to the publishing of story that detailed boardroom planning.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
5 min read
Hewlett-Packard's surveillance of CNET News.com reporters began before a key story was published and, following that story, expanded to include bogus e-mail tips and physical surveillance, government investigators have told the reporters involved.

HP began tracking the phone records of CNET News.com reporter Dawn Kawamoto on Jan. 17, Kawamoto said she was told on Tuesday. That was about a week after a January strategy meeting for directors and executives, but six days before News.com published its Jan. 23 story about the meeting.

News.com reporter Tom Krazit also was told by investigators that his personal phone records were accessed on Jan. 20, the same day he called HP spokesman Robert Sherbin for comment about the board meeting. In records provided by HP to government investigators regarding its leak hunt, there is a notation that says Krazit made a "call to BS (presumably Sherbin) for comment." The story was published three days later.

It has been widely thought that HP reignited and intensified a nearly yearlong leak probe after that story published, but the account given to Krazit and Kawamoto suggests HP had in place the means to quickly track down private phone records before publication of that or other articles.

Sherbin, HP's vice president of external communications, said Tuesday evening that he does not recall whom he notified about his conversation with Krazit, but had been asked some time earlier to flag other HP officials of potential news leaks. It's not clear how news of Sherbin's conversation with Krazit reached HP's investigators, nor is it clear what prompted HP to target Kawamoto before the story was published.

HP has come under fire for for employing the legally questionable practice of "pretexting," or obtaining personal information under false pretenses. HP has said the personal phone records of board members, two HP employees, nine journalists, including three CNET News.com reporters, and an unknown number of other people were accessed by investigators hired by the company to look into news leaks.

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California's Attorney General Bill Lockyer said in a television interview last week that his office believes it has enough information to bring charges against people both inside and outside the company. Charges could come within a week, according to a spokesman for Lockyer, although there is no set timetable.

The Wall Street Journal cited internal HP e-mail on its Web site late Tuesday night that indicated HP Chairman Patricia Dunn and General Counsel Ann Baskins helped direct the company's board-leak investigation as early as summer 2005, including planning and execution of many steps of the probe. The Journal reported that the investigation reached a new phase in January, referred to in e-mails as KONA II.

The firestorm of controversy led to HP's announcement last week that Dunn would step down as chairman in January and turn over that job to CEO Mark Hurd. Dunn will remain a director. Director George Keyworth resigned from the board. Venture capitalist Tom Perkins also quit the board earlier this year to protest the investigation.

The information provided by government investigators Tuesday also provides new insight into the aggressiveness of HP's leak hunt. Following the Jan. 23 story by Kawamoto and Krazit, an HP investigator posing as a tipster began e-mailing Kawamoto, starting with a Jan. 27 e-mail from a Hotmail account purporting to be from "Jacob Goldfarb," Kawamoto was told.

"I am a senior level executive with a high tech firm in the valley and an avid reader of your columns. My real name is not used, you might understand why," the bogus tipster wrote. "Not quite sure how to approach you on this, but I'll attempt anyway. In short, tired of broken promises, misguided initiatives and generally bad treatment. Have some information that I would be interested in passing along. Felt it might be appropriate to contact you."

A later e-mail from that same address included an attachment believed to have contained marketing information about a new HP product. That attachment, government investigators told Kawamoto, is believed to have had the ability to track the e-mail, notify the sender if it was opened, and tell the sender if the e-mail was forwarded and to which IP address it had been forwarded. Sending Kawamoto an attachment like that would not have been illegal, government investigators said, noting that the technology used was not believed to have been a keylogger loaded onto the computer.

HP investigators also employed physical surveillance on Kawamoto for three days starting on Feb. 9, she was told. One note by the investigators said: "Morning of Feb. 10: surveillance resumed on DK and on other subjects." Included in the notes is at least one surveillance photo of Kawamoto.

In a Feb. 23 e-mail discussion, HP investigators also discussed following Kawamoto to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., because they suspected she was going to hand the bogus marketing material off to her source for confirmation, she was told. HP's investigators even called the hotel where she was staying, but nixed tracking her at the Magic Kingdom when they learned she had already checked out.

Kawamoto never wrote a story based on the bogus information, but the surveillance continued in some manner through at least March, she was told.

Interestingly, HP's investigators did not do a significant background check on her, Kawamoto was told, but they did take a look at Krazit's past by accessing public and private databases. They searched for his parents' names, his employment history, even the high school he attended in Connecticut, Krazit was told by government investigators.

In all, of the roughly 4,000 documents provided by HP to government investigators, 931 contain Kawamoto's name (including nearly every story she had written during the past five years), she was told. Kawamoto has worked at News.com since 1996. Krazit, who started at News.com on Jan. 16, is named in just 47, he was told.

The government's pretexting investigation should widen in the coming weeks.

A congressional subcommittee on Friday asked Dunn and Baskins to appear at a Sept. 28 hearing about the company's surveillance methods. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce also sent letters asking HP outside counsel Larry Sonsini and outside investigator Ronald DeLia to testify as part of the daylong hearing.

The committee has received indications that Dunn and Baskins will testify but has yet to receive a formal confirmation letter. Sonsini also plans to testify, but it's unclear how much he will be able to say, given that much of his work for HP may be covered by attorney-client privilege.

The San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News reported on Tuesday that HP also targeted the phone records of former CEO Carly Fiorina, while The Wall Street Journal said Sonsini had his phone records targeted as well. HP declined to comment on whether either person had been pretexted.

The Journal also reported that an internal HP investigator e-mailed others at the company to warn that its use of pretexting might be illegal. HP declined to comment on the e-mail.

On Wednesday night, Dunn is expected to be inducted into the Bay Area Business Hall of Fame by the Bay Area Council, a local business and civic organization.