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The investigation into Hewlett-Packard’s boardroom spying scandal has unearthed evidence that suggests a more widespread use of ethically questionable investigative tactics by large companies.

HP officials claimed the tactics adopted by the company’s investigators to find the source of a boardroom leak had been used by it and other companies in the past, according to evidence presented to congressional hearings this week.

In one case, Fred Adler, the HP IT security chief who masterminded a plot to plant a tracking device in the e-mail of a reporter suspected of receiving leaked information, told Congress that the company used that technique on a dozen to two dozen occasions and he believed the practice was legal.

An account of an interview with Ronald DeLia, a private investigator involved in the HP mole hunt, said he had previously used false pretences to uncover hotel phone records during a “similar investigation involving leaks from a Big Five accounting firm to a Wall Street Journal reporter”.

The draft memo, written for HP by lawyers at Wilson Sonsini as part of an investigation into the company’s leak probe, marked the first time that the use of pretexting had been tied to a big company other than HP since news of the scandal broke. It said that “historically, about half” of Mr DeLia’s work had been for HP.

In a third case, Anthony Gentilucci, then head of HP’s global investigations team, told Kevin Hunsaker, a senior HP lawyer, in a January e-mail that HP used “pretext interviews on a number of investigations to extract information and/or make covert purchases of stolen property”.

If true, these accounts would lend credence to testimony by Patricia Dunn, HP’s ousted chairman, who told lawmakers that she believed “the fraudulent misrepresentation of identity . . . was part of a standard arsenal of Hewlett-Packard techniques” used in company investigations. Ms Dunn said she believed such methods may be “common, not just at HP but at companies around the country”.

One investigations specialist at a big risk consultancy told the Financial Times this month that “we get asked a lot by fairly senior executives and lawyers who [want access to] private records and bank accounts”.

Cingular, the mobile operator, yesterday filed suit against several “data brokers” it says used false pretences to collect phone numbers for the HP probe. Verizon, a rival, launched a similar suit on Thursday.

HP declined to comment on past investigations. It said: “Pretexting has no place at HP and will not be used in any way, shape, or form going forward in any investigation.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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