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Thursday, August 16, 2007

CNET/H-P Suit: Good Personal Privacy v. Bad Personal Privacy VIolator

Posted By on Thu, Aug 16, 2007 at 11:55 AM

The Snitch compares nefarious snooping described in CNET employee's suit against H-P, with supposedly benign private snooping described in CNET's Internet "privacy" policy, and finds unsettling parallels.

Corporate spying gets a new wrinkle this week with a complaint against Hewlett-Packard regarding the pretexting scandal. Snitch Matt Smith dug up the documents (Pages: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12.) related to yesterday's filing by CNET reporters against Hewlett-Packard. He also compares the complaint against CNETs own privacy policy -- which pretty much says they can do what they want with what you do on their site. Crap, what does our site's privacy policy state? Hit it, Matt. -d2

Primary Sources


In an installment we’ll call “Good Personal Privacy Violator/Bad Personal Privacy Violator,” SF Weekly examines the text of a lawsuit filed Aug. 15 against H-P by attorneys for CNET journalist Dawn Kawamoto and her husband, Jon Kawamoto.

We also examine CNET’s own “privacy statement,” which suggests the San Francisco company engages in behavior similar in some ways to what Kawamotos characterize as Hewlett Packard’s nefarious, privacy-invading scheme.

The Kawamotos’ complaint was among five separate lawsuits filed Wednesday on behalf of people allegedly spied on by Hewlett-Packard, as that company sought to staunch boardroom press leaks. The plaintiffs had rebuffed Hewlett-Packard’s offer of a private settlement.

The complaint alleges Hewlett-Packard unfairly enriched itself by hiring private investigators to ...

invade the Kawamotos’ privacy by using Social Security numbers and other information in order to obtain logs of telephone calls they made.

This caused the Kawamotos to suffer emotionally, the complaint says. Their attorney Kevin Boyle was quoted as stating he hoped to obtain a large enough punitive damage award “to make sure this never happens again.”

Boyle’s right: it must be traumatic when a big technology company employs misleading pretenses to obtain personal information, uses that information to obtain more personal secrets, then sells or otherwise profits from that private information.

CNET’s customers, for instance, might be upset to learn the extent to which that company apparently spies on them, uses that information to do more spying, and then profits from the information.

The CNET “privacy” policy – like that of so many other personal data-miners these days -- essentially states that the company willfully lures customers into divulging private information, adds it to other personal data it buys, or obtains in other unexplained ways. The company then considers itself at liberty to sell this information to others, or use it in any other way it deems profitable.

SF Weekly is aware of the web technorati mantra “Privacy’s dead; get over it.”

But it was interesting to read attorneys for CNET staffers assert that it’s emotionally painful, economically damaging, and just plain morally wrong for a company to trick private information out of people and profit from it.

By creating giant, highly detailed databases of personal information then reserving their right to sell it, web data aggregators such as CNET increase consumers risk of identity theft, spam and other unwanted solicitations, and other harm.

When we asked Boyle about this parallel, he referred us to a line in the complaint that says, “As a general practice, [Hewlett-Packard] engaged in “pretexting” by attempting to obtain personal information of others through fraud and false pretenses.”

“I can’t comment any more than what is in the complaint,” added Boyle.

It’s possible to read the complaint’s language as a condemnation of the growing Internet private information mining industry – where CNET does its business. This is especially if one considers the definition of “false pretenses” to include inviting customers into subscription-only web pages, coaxing them to post opinions, enter web-based contests, sign up for e-mail newsletters, participate in message boards – all as bait for divulging home addresses, phone numbers, credit card numbers, job titles, usernames and passwords.

Let's cut to the primary sources:

CNET employees lawsuit against Hewlett Packard:

“In an interview held on Sept. 8, 2006, when asked if she believed pretexting is illegal, Defendant Patricia Dunn replied, “I have no idea, but it’s wrong.””

“By using plaintiffs social security numbers and other personal information, defendants engaged in illegal and reprehensible conduct which includes, but is not limited to, contacting plaintiff’s home, work and cellular phone providers and falsely representing themselves as the plaintiffs in order to obtain their private telephone records.”

CNET “Privacy” message to consumers:

“Several of the services and features that we offer on our sites require you to provide us with information as a condition of usage. These include access to subscription-only areas, the ability to post opinions or other content, participation in sweepstakes or contests, subscriptions to print magazines and email newsletters and participation in message boards.

CNET employees’ lawsuit against Hewlett-Packard:

"Plaintiffs had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the intercepted information and also had a reasonable expectation that such information would not be intercepted.

"Plaintiffs had a legally protected privacy interest in their own confidential records.

"Defendants conduct in pretexting to obtain plaintiffs’ confidential records constitutes a serious invasion of privacy."

CNET “Privacy” message to consumers:

“We may buy or sell a company, or one or more of the companies in our corporate family may merge with or be acquired by another company. If we sell a business, we may transfer some or all of your information as a part of the sale in order that the service being provided to you may continue or for other business purposes.”

CNET employees’ lawsuit against Hewlett Packard:

Defendants conspired and intentionally intruded into the Plaintiffs’ solitude and private affairs by surreptitiously pretexting and obtaining information about private affairs without their knowledge or consent. Defendant’s invasion was highly offensive to a reasonable person because, among other things, the intrusion resulted in the revelation of confidential and private communications.

CNET “Privacy” message to consumers:

We collect personally identifiable information, such as your name, email address, postal address, phone number, mobile number and credit card information when you provide it to us. From time to time, we may also collect other sensitive information such as your job title, gender, username and password. We may also receive information about you from other sources and add it to the information you provided to us.

CNET employees’ lawsuit against Hewlett Packard:

"Defendant’s conduct as described herein was done with a conscious disregard for plaintiffs’ rights, and was done with the intent to vex and annoy them.

CNET “Privacy” message to consumers:

"Companies that use our ChannelOnline services may enter account data for third-party services. This information is necessarily passed on to those third parties when their ordering system is accessed"

CNET employees’ lawsuit against Hewlett-Packard:

"Defendants, through their acts of unfair and deceptive business practices, has obtained a value as a direct result of their scheme.

CNET “Privacy” message to consumers:

"Once you register with one of our CNET Networks sites you are no longer anonymous to us."

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