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11/25/2008
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Obama Cell Phone Breach Raises Broader Privacy Questions

A U.S. senator is demanding to know whether ordinary Americans' records are at risk.

Now that Verizon Wireless has fired workers for accessing the cell phone records of President-elect Barack Obama, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy wants to know whether average Americans' cell phone records are protected.

Leahy, D-Vt., sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice on Monday demanding to know how many investigations and prosecutions have arisen from violations of the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act. Leahy, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he believes that data privacy breaches involving ordinary citizens are common.

Leahy said it was "troubling" that Verizon Wireless employees improperly accessed and viewed Obama's personal cell phone records.

"The individuals involved in these apparent data breaches have been terminated, according to press reports," Leahy wrote in the letter. "But, sadly, data privacy breaches involving the sensitive phone records of ordinary Americans are occurring with greater frequency. Cell phone records provide a wealth of sensitive personal data that can be of great use to criminals, and the unauthorized disclosure of these records can further acts of domestic violence and compromise the safety of law enforcement officers and their families."

Leahy co-sponsored the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act. It prohibits phone companies and their employees from accessing customer information without permission.

"Among other things, this privacy law amended the federal criminal code to expressly prohibit a telecommunications carrier from obtaining confidential phone records by accessing customer accounts through the Internet, or by fraudulent computer-related activities, without prior authorization," he explained.

Finally, Leahy said he wanted to know whether officials with the Justice Department believe that the Telephone Records and Privacy Protection Act is an effective tool for protecting Americans' privacy (PDF).

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