Correction to This Article
A Sept. 8 Business article about a phone-records incident at Hewlett-Packard Co. incorrectly said George A. Keyworth II had resigned from the board of directors. After the board asked him to resign, he declined, and the company announced this week that he will not be renominated.
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HP Investigators Got Reporters' Phone Records

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"Congress has been myopic at looking at this as a phone records issue," said Robert Douglas, a privacy consultant. "It's much broader: It's utility records, bank records, medical records, cable and satellite TV records -- all of American consumers' records."

At least four bills have emerged in Congress dealing specifically with unauthorized access to private phone records. But none has passed, despite lawmakers' vows early this year to have a bill on President Bush's desk by late spring.

In the absence of federal laws, states have taken the lead in enacting tough consumer protection and privacy statutes. California, where Hewlett-Packard is based, has some of the toughest, outlawing unauthorized access to computer records or computer systems to wrongly control or copy data. Another California law makes it a crime to obtain personal identifying information, such as a Social Security number, and use it for an unlawful purpose.

The Hewlett-Packard case could spur Congress to act before its current session ends, some consumer advocates said.

The House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee is expected to hold a hearing this month on what phone companies are doing to protect customers' records.

"All pretexting should be prohibited," said Jeannine Kenney, senior policy analyst at Consumers Union. "Equally important, however, is that Congress take steps to prevent the violations from occurring in the first place by requiring the carriers or anyone who is entrusted with consumer data to better safeguard that information."

Viet Dinh, a former assistant U.S. attorney general who represents a Hewlett-Packard board member, said criminal laws regarding wire, computer and identity fraud are not comprehensive enough to protect consumers. "The current controversy highlights in a very dramatic manner a pervasive problem with respect to the illegal access and trading of personal records," he said.

Douglas, a former private investigator, said he thinks the case could provide momentum to stalled legislation.

But, then, he thought that before.

"One would have thought that the HP matter would be enough in the waning days of the session to push legislation through," he said. "If not, I think Congress owes the American public an explanation of how, in the course of a full year, they have not got a very simple bill to the president's desk to protect Americans' phone records."


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