No one has ever accused major IT vendors of being role models. Microsoft gets the most public heat, but it’s far from the most loathed, or most unethical, in the business. Resellers, whose reward for having built a thriving market for some new product is to have the largest customers stolen by a direct-sales force more interested in bonuses than either the reputation or long-term growth of the products they sell.
Every once in a while someone pulls a real doozy, though; the kind of diabolity you’d never believe of an otherwise respectable company. Something so contemptible you’re sure the story has to have been exaggerated by a competitor. No one in their right mind would have done something like that, right?
This is one of those times. HP, driven to paranoid mania by a perfectly ordinary story revealing that the company’s top execs had sneaked off to a posh resort to put together a strategy outline for the next 18 months. From a reporting perspective it was a fine story; from a business perspective, the strategy itself is a yawner.
But HP chair Patricia Dunn got so ticked off she launched an investigation, against the advice of HP’s corporate governance guru, that eventually let to an HP contractor hacking into the private phone records of both board members and at least one reporter involved in the story.
Think what you will about the clandestine phone surveillance program of the Bush administration, and the Justice department’s practice of squeezing private phone records out of phone companies.
But there’s absolutely no excuse for this stuff from a corporation. There’s no national security involved and no ameliorating circumstances; the victim didn’t work for HP, wasn’t using one of HP’s phones, and had no contractual or other obligation to keep information received from sources at HP secret.
It’s not even a First Amendment issue, though that makes the whole thing worse. How much good information do you think you’d get on the vendors you don’t trust if they were allowed to bully or invade the privacy of anyone writing something they don’t like?
It’s purely a legal and ethical issue. On the legal issue, the contractor should be charged in criminal court; and Dunn should resign. Even if she didn’t know the specifics of the theft of phone records, it was her paranoia and excessive response that was at fault. She’s not some flunky; she sets the example for other top HP execs to follow.
HP used to be one of the most boring, but most respectable and accomplished companies in the IT business. Things have changed since former CEO Carly Fiorina changed the company’s slogan to HP:Invent, while eliminating most technical innovation in favor of cost-effective module assembly.
Now it’s more like HP:Subvert. Now that’s innovation; who knew it was possible to be that despicable? Microsoft, Oracle, eat your hearts out.