Hewlett Packard (HP) would apparently find plenty of support from the corporate boardroom at other companies for HP's attempts to identify the source who was leaking confidential information about the company to the media.
A just-completed survey of more than 200 board members at publicly traded companies in the U.S. showed 73 percent saying they believe a company chairman should be empowered to use any legally available means to identify the source of a confidential leak at the board level.
About 71 percent feel it was okay for a chairman to review a board member's e-mails or other confidential data stored on company computers. About 50 percent said that obtaining and reviewing telephone records of individuals is okay so long as pretexting -- the method used in the HP probe -- is not illegal. And over half of those who responded to the survey find it permissible to "tail" or follow individuals inside and outside the company.
The survey was conducted by think-tank Ponemon Institute after news of the HP scandal broke earlier this month. The results are based on information gathered via phone from 226 individuals who serve on corporate boards at U.S. companies. Larry Ponemon, who runs the institute, is a Computerworld columnist.
"It's somewhat surprising and distressing that such a high percentage of board members would be okay with this," said Alan Chapell, a New York-based research fellow on Ponemon Institute's Responsible Information Management Council. "It sounds like in this instance, corporate integrity trumps privacy -- at least as it pertains to board members."
In the long term, such attitudes could affect the willingness of individuals to sit on corporate boards, Chapell cautioned. And it also raises some troubling questions about whether such practices could extend to employees as well.
"Its interesting to note that (HP Chairman Patricia) Dunn is stepping down, even though many of her peers would have done the same thing" to investigate the source of a leak, he said.
Among the other highlights of the Ponemon study were the following:
- About 85 percent of the respondents felt that protecting confidential corporate information is more important than preserving a board member's privacy rights;
- Just under a quarter of the respondents thought "aggressive surveillance methods" are employed frequently or very frequently by their companies;
- And over 80 percent said the boards they serve on now have no policy for protecting the privacy rights of board members.
The Ponemon study comes in the wake of the disclosure that Dunn had hired private investigators back in May to identify a board member who was believed to be leaking confidential corporate information to outsiders. During the investigation, the outside firm obtained and analyzed the phone records of several journalists and board members by pretexting -- or impersonating -- them. The public outcry that resulted from the disclosure led Dunn to announce last week that she would step down from her position as HP chairwoman in January 2007. She will remain on the board and CEO Mark Hurd will take over as chairman.
The scandal also resulted in inquiries by the U.S. Department of Justice about the company's conduct and has prompted a congressional inquiry.