President-elect's account information compromised

Verizon Wireless placed a handful of employees on paid administrative leave last week, on suspicion of improperly peeking at President-Elect Barack Obama’s cell phone records.

“This week we learned that a number of Verizon Wireless employees have, without authorization, accessed and viewed President-Elect Barack Obama's personal cell phone account," Verizon Wireless CEO and president Lowell McAdam told reporters in a statement.

The phone in question – a personal, voice-only flip phone – has been inactive for several months, says the future president’s transition team. Because the phone didn’t have e-mail or data capabilities, Obama’s correspondences were not in danger of being read.

Reports indicate that the suspended Verizon employees had access to a relatively limited amount of data, including a record of phone numbers, call length, and timestamps.

When pressed for further details on what was accessed, however, Verizon Jeffrey Nelson declined additional comment.

The nature of the employees’ inquiries has not yet been determined, and those who accessed his account with a legitimate business need will return to their jobs without punishment. Anyone who accessed his account improperly, however, will face “appropriate disciplinary action … up to and including termination,” said McAdam.

Ars Technica notes that the unnamed employees’ actions fall outside the coverage of privacy laws due to the fact that they generally cover the content of communications – such as the contents of voice mail and e-mail messages – and not their surrounding metadata.

George Washington University law professor Orin Kerr says any employees who acted improperly might find themselves subject to the penalties prescribed in section 1030 of the U.S. criminal code, which prohibits anyone from “intentionally [accessing] a computer without authorization or [exceeding their] authorized access.” Violators could face with a 10-year prison sentence.

Concerns such as this incident are fueling questions about whether Obama, a reputedly avid user of technology, should be allowed to use a cell phone and e-mail during his term as President.

The 2008 presidential campaign forged new ground in the area technology abuse, with both presidents’ campaigns targeted for illegal information sweeps by those trusted with safeguarding the U.S. government’s databases: State Department officials punished three separate contractors for snooping on Obama’s passport information on file last March, and an Ohio agency director was suspended after she improperly used state resources to access personal information on “Joe the Plumber.”

Update 11/24/2008: Verizon confirmed today that it fired the aforementioned employees who accessed Obama's account. "This was some employees' idle curiosity," said a company representative. "We now consider this matter closed."

"Google fired a shot heard 'round the world, and now a second American company has answered the call to defend the rights of the Chinese people." -- Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.)

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