What the HP affair really says about privacy

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper writes that HP's "non-denial denial" was a missed opportunity to make a grander statement about privacy.

Charles Cooper
Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
3 min read
After what had to be the most hellish week of her professional career, Patricia Dunn finally had enough. Hewlett-Packard's embattled chairman said she will leave the post in January, making the right decision--for all the wrong reasons. In the only public comment she's made since then, Dunn offered a modest apology for the "inappropriate techniques" HP used to carry out an inquiry into boardroom leaks.

And so now it's back to business, everyone, she seemed to imply. I'm staying put until the start of the new year. Let's move on.

Actually, let's not.

Just to be clear, HP's investigators lied to fool the phone company into supplying private data belonging to company board members and journalists. Yes, I suppose that does qualify as an "inappropriate" technique.

Dunn's heavily lawyered "non-apology, apology" was an obvious sop to Wall Street.

Indeed, if a parliamentary democracy found itself in this sort of mess, the minister in charge of the probe would have immediately drawn the appropriate conclusions and resigned.

Not at HP.

Instead, Dunn still justifies her original decision to discover the source of leaks that she claims "had the potential to affect not only the stock price of HP but also that of other publicly traded companies."

On behalf of the CNET News.com newsroom, I thank her for the compliment, since it was our January story that apparently set her off. But her claim stretches beyond the boundary of credulity. Her real point was to point attention elsewhere.

Dunn's heavily lawyered "non-apology, apology" was an obvious sop to Wall Street. If management let the affair fester, big investors worried it might cause real damage. The board felt pressure not to let things get out of hand. And so a deal was struck: HP would get a new chairman, while Dunn could hang around for the long goodbye.

Maybe we were supposed to conclude that Dunn's judgment wasn't as flawed as the critics--yours truly among them--suggest. But California's attorney general, who is gathering evidence and may indict HP personnel and its hired contractors, apparently thinks this story is not over.

Truth be told, I wasn't hoping for a Tammy Faye moment of teary contrition from Dunn. But this was a moment where she needed to do more than shift blame to some mysterious--and still unidentified--contractor. Wishful thinking on my part, but HP might have seized the moment to make an important statement about protecting peoples' rights to privacy in the cyberage. Instead, HP served up pabulum and hoped that would satisfy the growing chorus of naysayers.

Not everyone agrees this is such a big deal. Since writing an earlier column urging the board to get a new chairman, I've received no shortage of e-mails from readers accusing me of selective outrage. To wit: "You wouldn't give a rat's tootsie if reporters' precious personal data had not been involved."

With all due respect, my interlocutors are missing the bigger point. The HP affair is only the latest in a series of depressingly familiar incidents that underscore a painful truth: When it comes to privacy, expediency too often trumps principle. In the eyes of our best and brightest, it's just not very important. Congress grandstands but does little to give weight to its words. The president cuts corners, saying court-ordered permission to snoop is an encumbrance--and even harmful to national security.

Maybe it was too much to hope for better from the folks running HP. After all, they're just doing what everyone else does.