Hewlett-Packard has always been at the top of any short list of high-tech companies with a strong sense of direction and purpose on the issue of privacy.

Where many companies have avoided wading into legislative and policy battles, and others have compromised their credibility by adopting whatever anti-consumer privacy position is promulgated by the Direct Marketing Association and other industry trade groups, HP has taken a different path.

One of the first major companies to hire a Privacy Officer and to give her a prominent pulpit from which to preach, HP has taken a strong stand in favor of sound privacy practices, and provided industry leadership to drive other companies towards responsible practices.

Right up until their Board of Directors chairwoman started spying on people, that is.

It has been reported in recent weeks that HP’s chairwoman, Patricia Dunn, used ethically questionable – and possibly illegal – methods to obtain copies of the telephone records of her fellow board members and journalists who covered the company.

Dunn claims that she was simply trying to ferret out the source of leaks about internal company matters in the wake of recent corporate upheavals at one of Silicon Valley’s oldest and most respected companies.

In an effort to track down the leakers, Dunn apparently hired the well-known Silicon Valley law firm, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, to snoop into the private affairs of her fellow board members.

The investigators allegedly used a well-known tactic, called “pretexting,” to trick telephone company personnel into turning over the private phone records of the investigation’s subjects. Pretexting is a favorite tactic of stalkers, identity thieves, and other fraudsters.

It’s also one of many privacy-invading tactics that are the subject of several proposed pieces of federal legislation – all of which appears hopelessly stalled in Congress, as Republican leaders express concerns that it could impose undue burdens on phone companies.

Who knew it was such a burden to not assist in violating someone’s privacy?