Thoughts, reflections, news, and musings from a veteran Silicon Valley journalist and commentator.

September 08, 2006

Memo to the Press: Pretexting is Already Illegal

In a stunning example of group think scores of my brethren in the news media have linked hands and jumped off the same cliff today. I refer, of course, to the widespread coverage of the so-called "pretexting" scandal at Hewlett Packard. Many of these stories (here is one example) have focused on the supposed need for new laws to protect the privacy of telephone records and other similar documents. The only problem: pretexting is already illegal. In fact, the word "pretexting" is itself a pretext for a well-known crime that has been around for as long as one person has coveted something that belongs to someone else. The word 'pretexting" is simply a euphemism - invented by its practitioners - for obtaining something that does not belong to them by lying and committing fraud. "Pretexting" to get phone records that belong to someone else is no different than, say, going to a car repair shop and obtaining the keys to someone else's ride by pretending to be the owner of the vehicle. Now, do we need a special law to stop people from stealing cars by pretending to be the owner of the car? Of course not. We already have laws against theft by fraud.

Likewise, we already have laws that prohibit the sale of stolen property. We also have laws that prevent the purchase of stolen property if the buyer knows the property was stolen.

If I were an editor today, one of the rare days I miss that job, I'd be assigning reporters to look into the question of why law enforcement personnel appear to be so reluctant to protect citizens, including HP's board members, from the theft of their property. There may be a question of exactly who owns phone records, the customer or the phone company. But they are certainly not owned by the "pretexters" who have used fraud to obtain them.

The sooner our press stops focusing on the bogus idea that we need new laws and starts focusing on the question of why our existing laws are not being enforced, the quicker we'll see these deplorable practices stop.

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Interesting comments, Hal.

So when the Press or a Broadcast Newstation poses as a regular consumer to enable it to do "undercover investigative reporting" on some business or other, that is not pretexting or "obtaining something that does not belong to them by lying and committing fraud." How so?

It truth be told, the press cares little about HP Board Members spying on each other, what it cares about is any attempt by a company to stop illegal leaks to the press itself. Pretty self-serving, isn't it?

Posted by: Don B. at September 13, 2006 11:48 AM

Don B:

I've been involved in plenty of undercover investigations as a journalist over the years, as has my wife, Loren Stein, who won an award two years ago from the California Newspaper Publisher's Association as the writer of the Best Investigative Story at a Large Weekly Newspaper in California. What I can tell you is that neither one of us has ever broken the law or committed fraud to get a story.

There is a line reporters, at least ethical reporters, don't cross. Perhaps people outside our profession don't understand how we work. But there is a very big difference between, say, posing as a would-be customer of a business that rips off consumers in order to get a story -- which I have done -- and pretending to be a REAL PERSON in order to obtain something that belongs to them.

The first is a good, legal investigative technique. The second example is a crime, pure and simple, no matter who does it.

Posted by: Hal at September 13, 2006 12:26 PM

What about ethical hacking? Social engineering used every day? If enforced how far could these go? Pretexting is used everyday by sales-people to children trying to make friends.

Posted by: Shadowwriter at February 3, 2010 07:56 AM

So, social engineers "pretext", while investigative journalists "pose", and the only difference is that one doesn't "cross a line"? Sounds like hairsplitting, to me. What if a social engineer pretexted as "a would-be customer", using the same tactics that you've used, only for a different goal?

When it comes to social engineering, you should be more concerned about the fact that theft is illegal, regardless of whether or not fraud was involved.

Posted by: SDragon at October 11, 2010 08:33 AM

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