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Radio News Bulletin
Easy pickings in phone 'hack' scandal
07 July 2011, 13:33 PM | Source: Bill Code, SBS
The list of people who have had been a victim of Britain's phone 'hacking' scandal grows each day, with murder victims now added to the celebrities and politicians who have complained or been informed of involvement by police.
It all sounds very high-tech. Breaking into supposedly secure GSM networks is now, as one researcher recently showed certainly possible.
But how the mobile phones were hacked in this particular scandal are - to say the least - somewhat more basic.
What's at the centre of it is gleaning information from Voicemail messages accessed without authority, much of which occurred in the first half of the last decade.
In 2007, a News of the World journalist was jailed, along with a private investigator, Glen Mulcaire, for illegally listening to the voicemail of three members of the Royal household.
The case shone light on the use of private investigators and the so-called 'dark arts' of newsgathering employed in the UK.
But Mulcaire was no IT expert, rather proficient in a few tricks and some social engineering.
One of his tricks was getting into voicemail accounts without the owners' permission.
In the UK, it's possible to access your voicemail from any phone by calling a set number, which may be based on the mobile number in question, or may be generic to the network.
Once through, you need to put a PIN in. But as the Guardian reports, only a minority of the 'hacking' victims approached by police bothered to change their PIN from the default given by their manufacturer.
The New Scientist reports that some telcos have since changed their practices to force customers' to change from the default PIN, but the magazine also details some of the social-engineering techniques investigators can deploy when faced with a PIN they don't know.
These can be as basic as saying you're forgotten the PIN, forgetting your password and password prompter, but having the first line of an address and date of birth to hand. Not hard work for either an investigative journalist, a private investigator, or even a primary school student.
The New York Times, quoted by the ABC's Background Briefing, released a recording of Mulcaire explaining himself just how easy it was in one instant.
Investigative reporter Nick Davis has been on the issue of phone hacking by British tabloid newspapers for years, and detailed the issue at length in his 2008 critique of British news media, Flat Earth News.
In his book, he outlines many of the ways in which hired PIs and the journalists they worked for were able to con call centre staff into thinking the person they were speaking to was the owner of the voicemail account, with surprising ease.
But when phone hacking didn't suffice for the scoop, he alleges that cash payments often would. He shows that newspapers and their staff are not only guilty of phone hacking, but of a whole range of illegal news gathering activities from bribing civil servants to going through mounds of a target's rubbish.
The British Prime Minister has announced an inquiry into the practices at the News of the World. If the inquiry is broad ranging, expect a lot more newspapers, and a lot more techniques, to bubble to the surface.
For advice on what you can do to make your phone more secure head to the ACMA website.