The ‘phone hacking’ was despicable, but it wasn’t hacking

Private investigators hired by tabloids were ‘blaggers’, not hackers.

We now know that certain tabloids including the News of The World covertly gained access to the voicemails of all sorts of people, from celebrities, to the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler. It was, as Robert Jay Q.C. described in his opening submission to the Leveson Inquiry, a "fishing expedition".

But while some have described the actions of the tabloids and the private investigators they hired as 'hacking', as far as we know thus far, it was nothing of the sort. What they did should really be described as communications interception, or if you want to use security parlance, default configuration attacks.

If the owner of a mobile phone does not set it up with a new voicemail password or PIN, it remains the default PIN set by the phone maker or telecoms operator. 1234, for example, or 0000. All that a private investigator then needs to listen to one's voicemails is the mobile phone number itself, and for the owner not to have changed the PIN.

So what the private investigators did was 'blag' the mobile phone numbers of their intended victims, either through social engineering techniques where you persuade a helpful person to divulge a mobile number by pretending to be someone else, or simply by paying someone at the phone company to give it out.

That is not to say that what the tabloids and the private investigators they hired was not despicable, and the Notw's royal affairs editor Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire may not be the only persons deemed by the courts to have also acted criminally.

There are techniques that can be used to hack into mobile phone conversations themselves and also to snoop on text messages sent via mobile phones. GSM interceptors can do exactly that, but these are not something someone with little more than 'blagging' skills would be able to deploy. Companies, more sophisticated hackers and even governments do use them, but we're yet to hear evidence that these were used by the tabloids or private investigators under the Leveson Inquiry spotlight.

It's scary enough that corporations and governments use sophisticated cybercrime techniques to bypass internet and communications security. It's worth being that little bit more specific about the techniques that are being used in different situations, if we don't want the general response to be, 'there's nothing I can do about my online security: if someone wants to hack my voicemails I am sure they could'.

When really the response in this instance, along with the outrage, might also be, 'I should change my PIN'.

Jason Stamper is NS technology correspondent and editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.