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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear