The National Council of Investigation and Securities Services, which represents 1,100 heads of investigation agencies and security firms, opposes use of pretexting to obtain phone records. But it worries that the HP backlash might cause Congress to ban all forms of pretexting, wiping out a key tool of investigators.
"If you were to outlaw pretexting, an unintended consequence would be outlawing the use of undercover investigators to detect theft in the workplace or seek out identities of drug dealers," said Bruce Hulme, legislative director for the Baltimore trade group and president of New York investigation firm Special Investigations.
"Undercover investigation (involves use of) pretense, subterfuge or pretext. To locate a suspect, one might use a subterfuge rather than identify oneself as an investigator," he said. "Pretexting is a recognized investigative tool used by both public and private sectors in law enforcement and public safety."
Hulme said his group and other trade organizations for security specialists had made sure their members knew that pretexting to obtain phone records was a gray area and on the verge of being outlawed.
"Anyone who was a member of an organization like (the National Council of Investigation and Securities Services) was made aware of the fact that, 'Folks, this is a problem, and if it isn't illegal it's going to be illegal really soon,' " he said.
Companies that want to delve into James Bond territory have several types of activities to choose from, including competitive intelligence, security and private investigation. Major corporations generally have in-house specialists in at least the first two of those areas. All of those professions draw some personnel from the worlds of law enforcement, military intelligence and even the CIA.
Competitive intelligence means collecting information about rivals. Competitive intelligence firms and their trade group say they collect information through public sources and never conceal their identities.
"Any time we've ever been hired by a large corporation, including corporations like HP, we have been asked to certify that we would not do anything along the lines of misrepresentation," said Michel Sandman, senior vice president of Fuld & Co., a competitive-intelligence company in Cambridge, Mass.
HP's Standards of Business Conduct, a 30-page brochure available on its Web site, says that employees may not enter into any contract that violates the law, nor engage in illegal activities involving industrial espionage against competitors.
Hanson, the ethics expert, said the HP case may be the tip of the iceberg.
"I think this is a hint that corporate investigative procedures may have gotten out of hand in other companies," he said. "If the HP officials failed to see the privacy issue, it seems like to me that other companies are even less likely to see it."