Fellow newsies were predictably — and rightfully — piqued on Wednesday when it was revealed that St. Paul cops got the cellphone call list of a TV reporter to try to figure out who leaked the police record (public record as it turned out) that the reporter was looking for.
After a day of being berated by journalism groups, and media columnists, St. Paul Police Chief John Harrington restored the idea of reporter privacy by ending his department’s hunt through the phone records.
Case closed on the privacy of reporters’ sources, right?
“In obtaining my phone records they basically opened up my reporter’s notebook,” said the reporter in question, Tom Lyden. “They basically looked at my notes. They have looked at sources. They have looked at people I have tried to protect.”
But the reality is, you can’t protect your sources and call them on a cellphone. And it doesn’t take a warrant or a ticked-off police department to figure out who they are.
Getting a list of phone numbers called to or from a cellphone, in fact, is easy, so easy that Congress held a hearing on the problem last year and found out that quite often, according to MSNBC, the customers were police departments and the FBI.
A publicly elected official caught up in the congressional inquiry also has said publicly that he obtained phone records for law enforcement officials. Colorado state Rep. Jim Welker, owner of Universal Communications Co., told the Rocky Mountain News earlier this month that he sold phone records to law enforcement officials, as well as debt collectors and financial companies.
How easy is it? Pretty easy. Last year, for example, a blogger bought the cellphone records of Gen. Wesley Clark, a former candidate for president.
All of the call records, of course, come from the cellphone companies, and were obtained illegally. The companies, in many cases, have sued data brokers, but they continue to proliferate on the Web. And there’s still an active exchange of cellphone records between the companies and the federal government. And quite often, the authorities are targeting journalists. A few months ago, the Senate Intelligence Committee agreed to a deal to give immunity to those companies who participate in the exchange.
Perhaps reporter sources can sleep easier tonight, knowing that John Harrington’s forces aren’t figuring out who they are. But any reporter who’s congratulating himself on turning back an assault on journalists, is missing the bigger story.
There’s a reason old-time journalists like dark garages.