Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Cell Out: In the past, this might have been a 24-hour crisis, a one-off story that required an immediate response but was quickly forgotten. But the Internet age has changed the rules, and the echo chamber of the blogosphere can make sure a story that resonates is amplified and repeated until it becomes a major embarrassment.

On January 5, the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that the “Chicago Police Department is warning officers their cell phone records are available to anyone—for a price. Dozens of online services are selling lists of cell phone calls, raising security concerns among law enforcement and privacy experts.” It was not clear how those lists were obtained, and no one from a major telecom company was quoted in the story.

The story was picked up two days later by blogger John Aravosis of the popular progressive AmericaBlog, who left readers in no doubt who he thought was to blame: “The phone companies. There is no way that these online services are outright stealing this information, if they’re able to get in just a few hours consistently. They’ve got access to the info, and from the reading I’ve done it seems the cell and land-line companies are selling our info for profit.”

On January 8, another blog, Democrats.com, offered to buy the cell phone records of leading Republicans: “The Bush administration, the Republican Party and the conservative movement all think it’s perfectly OK for Big Brother Bush to spy on Americans… We can turn the tables and start spying on them—thanks to commercially available phone records.”

By now, Aravosis had come across a quote in a Washington Post story in July of 2005—six months earlier—in which Cingular spokesman Mark Siegel described the acquisition of cell records as “‘an infinitesimally small problem.” Outraged that Cingular—his phone company—had known about the problem for six months and taken no action, he “clicked my mouse and got the private phone records of one of your customers within hours, and with no effort.”

On January 10, Aravosis posted Cingular’s woefully inadequate response to a reader who complained about the fact that his cell phone records were for sale. “Cingular Wireless does not release our customer’s information to any paid listing. Please review our privacy procedures… I hope this addresses the concerns you have.” It didn’t.

So Aravosis stepped things up a notch. He contacted one of the companies selling cell phone records and bought the phone record of General Wesley Clark, former supreme allied commander of NATO and Democratic presidential candidate. “All we needed was General Clark’s cell phone number and our credit card, and 24 hours later we had one hundred calls the general made on his cell phone in November. The calls included a number of calls to Arkansas, to foreign countries, and at least one call to a prominent reporter at the Washington Post…. The only question now remaining is why President Bush, our leaders in Congress, and our wireless phone companies (at the very least T-Mobile and Cingular, whose customers’ records are available online to anyone) have known about this problem for at least six months but have yet to fix it.”

The next day, January 13, the Sun-Times returned to the issue with a story headed: “Blogger buys presidential candidate’s call list.” The article quoted Clark: “When I learned today that my phone records were purchased for less than a hundred dollars I joined millions of Americans who worry about the invasion of their privacy that seems to be the growing price of technology. People should be able to trust that their privacy is being respected and protected by everyone from the government to our internet and mobile phone service providers. Clearly, this is not the case.” Again, the story contained no comment from any telecom company spokesperson.

A story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did, however. Cingular’s Mark Siegel (the same spokesman who six months earlier had described the problem as “infinitesimally small”) told the paper’s reporters that his company “isn’t aware of any complaints from users who’ve had their records given out,” a comment that is hard to reconcile with the postings on AmericaBlog.

Later the same day, Cingular issued with a press release, saying it had secured a restraining order against “companies involved in the theft and sale of cell phone records.”

And by January 15, when New York Newsday published an article reviewing the story so far, Cingular had clearly decided the issue was worth taking seriously. Siegel told Newsday that customer’s cell phone records can only be released to the customer or to law enforcement. “No one else is entitled to these records, the businesses who try to get them are committing a kind of identity theft which we’re calling ‘records rip-off,” he told Newsday.

Some quick thoughts:

1. Cingular sat on this for at least six months without any action. If the company had acted when it first learned of the problem, it could have portrayed itself as a victim. As it is, it was clearly negligent when it came to protecting its customers’ private information.
2. The company seems to have either missed or ignored the story as it picked up steam on the blogs. As far as I can tell, no one contacted Aravosis, the reporter who advanced the story most aggressively. It was only when the mainstream media got involved that Cingular acted.
3. Customer service people are your first line of PR defense. The response in this case—which reads like a form letter—showed zero awareness that the company’s reputation was threatened.

One more thought: Al Gore yesterday, in a blistering attack on the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping, demanded that telecommunications companies “that have provided the government with access to private citizens without a proper warrant should cease and desist participation with the complicity in this.” This issue is not going to go away.


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