Telco Giant Vodafone Looked At Journalist's Phone Records To See Who Was Leaking Info To Her

from the that's-illegal dept

Down in Australia, it appears that phone giant Vodafone is facing a bit of a scandal as it’s come out that the company went digging into a journalist’s phone records after she wrote some stories about security flaws in a Vodafone system. Remember, a decade ago, when there was a big scandal at HP, when it spied on board members to try to stop leaks? That was bad. This is worse. This is directly violating a customers’ privacy, just because you’re upset about some leaks.

In a 2012 email from then ?Vodafone Hutchison Australia head of fraud Colin Yates to then Vodafone global corporate secu?rity director Richard Knowlton, Mr Yates warns of the ?huge risk? to the company if a string of allegations ? which he ?has no reason to believe? are not factual ? ?gets into the public domain?.

Of particular concern to Mr Yates was the hacking of the ?call charge records and text messages? from the mobile of Fairfax investigative reporter Natalie O?Brien, then a Vodafone customer.

On January 10, 2011, the day after O?Brien broke a story about major security flaws with Vodafone?s Siebel data system ? ?including that private call records could be illegally accessed ? ?Vodafone investigators had discussions about searching her phone records to find the Vodafone sources for the story.

You can see the story by O’Brien here, in which she revealed that people could access Vodafone customer information, because a source she was talking to had the password to the company’s database. This resulted in an investigation by Australia’s Privacy Commissioner into Vodafone’s security practices. Meanwhile, Vodafone tried to play the whole thing down as a “one-off incident” of someone abusing the password to the system.

Meanwhile, in the background, they were abusing their own systems to try to figure out who was talking to O’Brien — and were admitting internally that they were misrepresenting the real situation publicly:

Following her story, Vodafone executives allegedly ?told the press, the NSW Privacy Commissioner and other high-profile Australian agencies that the breach was a one-off incident?.

Mr Yates wrote to Mr Knowlton: ?As you know this is in fact not the case and VHA has been suffering these breaches since Siebel went live and did nothing or very little to close off the weaknesses that allowed them to occur.?

Investigating a privacy breach by breaching the privacy of the reporter who exposed it is… perhaps not the proper response.

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Companies: vodafone

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Comments on “Telco Giant Vodafone Looked At Journalist's Phone Records To See Who Was Leaking Info To Her”

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13 Comments
Sheogorath (profile) says:

Investigating a privacy breach by breaching the privacy of the reporter who exposed it is… perhaps not the proper response.
Oh, it’s absolutely the proper response if you’re trying to scare people out of whistleblowing and reporting on the issues thus uncovered. Whether or not it’s the moral response, Vodafone clearly just doesn’t care. 🙁

Anonymous Coward says:

"from the that's-illegal dept"

Illegal under what law? (Sorry if the story mentions it; I can’t access The Australian’s site.) Usually companies have some fine print that allows them to access records to protect their own interests. It sounds like the same thing Microsoft did a while ago, and has never been prosecuted for (though Australia probably has better privacy laws than the USA).

Roger Strong (profile) says:

HP did more than spy on its board members; they too spied on reporters. They had their private investigators follow and examine the phone records of nine journalists who covered the company, as well as the records of some of their relatives.

It wasn’t just about spying. It was about putting pressure on reporters to avoid bad press. As Groklaw put it:

For the journalists that we know were followed and pretexted, detectives and maybe others got lists of who called them on the phone and who they called and when and where. Will folks want to call them now? Will they pick up the phone if they see on Caller ID it is one of those reporters? If you were telling a journalist something that your company would prefer you not tell, would you now?
[…]
Not only that, but some media entities have certain regulations about what a reporter can cover. At CNET, for example, none of the three can now cover HP. So is there damage to those journalists’ careers? Obviously that will be the argument made in court to demonstrate actual damages. If you are a tech reporter, and now you can’t cover a major tech company, are you damaged? Worse, might a cynical corporation wishing to get a good journalist off a story deliberately tail them so as to get the journalist banned from covering them from that point on?

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