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 security 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.