Verizon Wireless Secretly Passed AP Reporters' Phone Records to Feds

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 16 2013 3:06 PM

Verizon Wireless Secretly Passed AP Reporters' Phone Records to Feds

1322924
Verizon Wireless passed AP reporters' phone records to the feds.

Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

If you are a customer of Verizon Wireless, you might want to consider switching carriers in light of the Associated Press phone snooping scandal.

Ryan Gallagher Ryan Gallagher

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

When the feds came knocking for AP journalists’ call records last year, Verizon apparently turned the data over with no questions asked. The New York Times, citing an AP employee, reported Tuesday that at least two of the reporters’ personal cellphone records “were provided to the government by Verizon Wireless without any attempt to obtain permission to tell them so the reporters could ask a court to quash the subpoena.”

Advertisement

A quick refresher on the back story: It emerged Monday that the Justice Department obtained AP journalists’ phone records as part of what is believed to be an aggressive probe into a leak about a foiled terror plot, which led to a May 2012 AP scoop. The government seized the records for more that 20 separate phone lines assigned to AP staff in April and May of 2012, the AP reported. The seizure of the records has prompted a backlash from media organizations, while Attorney General Eric Holder has tried to justify the intrusion by insisting that the leak “put the American people at risk.” The AP says that it published the story only after receiving assurances from the government that “the national security concerns had passed.”

Controversially, the AP was not given advance notice of the seizure, which is considered the usual protocol when the government is seeking to obtain journalists’ records. However, Verizon Wireless could have notified the reporters, which may have helped them challenge its legality. Companies like Dropbox and Twitter have made it their policy to inform users (whenever possible) that the government is seeking access to their data, and Twitter has been applauded for how it has been willing to challenge authorities’ surveillance attempts in court. But Verizon—like AT&T, Facebook, and Comcast—has been criticized in the past for its lack of willingness to stand up for users’ privacy rights, which suggests its decision to hand over AP reporters’ records is true to form. The company has been rated as one of the worst in the United States for three consecutive years in the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s annual “Who Has Your Back?” reports.

I contacted Verizon Wireless for comment, querying whether the AP incident may prompt the company to change its policy regarding how it responds to such requests. Spokeswoman Debra Lewis said Verizon Wireless complied “with legal processes with regard to requests from law enforcement” but wouldn’t comment on specific cases. In regard to a change of policy, Lewis said she was “not going to speculate on what may or may not happen in the future.”

Either way, the debacle is likely to come as a much needed wake up call for some reporters, even if companies fail to change their questionable practices. The message is simple: Don’t communicate with sensitive sources on the phone, regardless of who your carrier is. Encryption is an option, but safest is to do things the old-fashioned way: face-to-face, with a notepad and a pen.

Update, May 16: Lawmakers introduced Thursday a bill intended to prevent another AP-style phone records grab from occurring in the future. The one-sentence Telephone Records Protection Act would apply to all Americans and would stop the feds from being able to seize phone records with a mere administrative subpoena, as occurred in the AP case. Instead, the TRPA would force the feds to meet a higher legal standard to obtain a court order, Wired reports, requiring the authorities to state “specific and articulable facts” to prove to a court that the records and information being sought is “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” The bill was introduced by Reps. Justin Amash, R-Mich.; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.; and Jared Polis, D-Colo.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Legal for Obama to Bomb Syria Because He Says It Is

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Even though I know I’m going to get flak for it.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Over There
Sept. 23 2014 12:16 PM Another Intervention?    Anti-ISIS airstrikes aren’t about keeping Americans safe.  
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 23 2014 12:36 PM Krispy Kreme Stuffed Half a Million Calories into One Box of Doughnuts
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 23 2014 11:33 AM High-Concept Stuff Designed to Remind People That They Don’t Need Stuff  
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 23 2014 11:13 AM Why Is This Mother in Prison for Helping Her Daughter Get an Abortion?
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 11:48 AM Punky Brewster, the Feminist Punk Icon Who Wasn’t
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 23 2014 10:51 AM Is Apple Picking a Fight With the U.S. Government? Not exactly.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 11:00 AM Google Exec: Climate Change Deniers Are “Just Literally Lying”
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.