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

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.