Hacking into phones and Blagging, where is it all going?


Whose fault is it for all these mobile phones being ‘hacked’? Simple, the owners and users of the phones, if you listen to the private investigators! In an interview yesterday, one investigator said that he was doing nothing wrong as far as he was concerned as the owners of the phones had made it easy for him to get into their voicemails. How does he do this? Simple, once you have the mobile number you can find out the service provider and each provider has a pre-set passcode system for accessing voicemails remotely. All the investigator did was call the number and when the voicemail started entered the passcode and voila, he was in to the messages! He was very proud of the fact he could do this so easily and said that it was the owners fault that the ‘hacking’ was going on for not protecting themselves…..

Whilst the morals of this may be highly questionable, it is a good point that the vast majority of people do not passcode protect their voicemails thus making it easier for anybody determined to break in to their voicemails to do so. We need a greater education programme around the setting of passcodes as the service providers do not make it very visible to their customers although it is usually described briefly in the manual that comes with the phone.

So is the investigator’s claim valid? Is it the fault of the people whose phones had been ‘hacked’ or is it something else? Personally I find the thought that someone can come along and access someone’s intimate conversations abhorrent and struggle to understand how they can feel they are not doing anything wrong. On the reverse side, they are being paid to do this by newspapers and financial institutions and this is what should be addressed by the Minstry of Justice urgently. Until the full weight of the law is brought to bear on the sponsors of this act then the private investigators will continue to do this.

Whislt this is not defined as ‘blagging’ it could be bordering on it as it is obtaining personal information about someone else without their consent. We have also seen that a Sunday broadsheet has allegedly tried to blag the bank account of the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. This is a direct breach of Section 55 of The Data Protection Act 1998 and needs to be looked at very closely to see what other occurrences there are of this happening. It is interesting that the prison option of Section 55 was never tabled and has not been taken forward, how these ministers must regret that now……..

The previous Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, tried to get this addressed in a presentation to Parliament on 10th May 2006 with the publication of ‘What Price Privacy?’ where he outlined the fact that despite the offence being in statute, blagging was still going on. This can be read in full at What Price Privacy?

Folowing this, the Commissioner set up an investigation into balgging and six months later published a follow up document presented at Parliament on 13th December 2006 What Price Privacy Now?. In his introduction to the report, Richard Thomas says “Some of the press coverage since the report has highlighted the intrusion into the lives of high profile public figures by the media but it should not be forgotten that this trade also affects the lives of people not in the public eye and is very often unrelated to media activity.” He went on to say, referring back to his original report “The main recommendation was the introduction of a two year prison sentence but it also called for the key players to take steps to reduce demand and raise awareness of the problem.

Surely this is the time for the Government to table the motion that was offered to them under the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 but not used by the Minister at the time. In the autumn of 2009, the Ministry of Justice tabled a consultation document on
“The knowing or reckless misuse of personal data”. This closed just prior to the General Election and the subsequent Government has unfortunately not acted any further on the recommendations that came out of it.

Where are we going to go with all this? Well with the press using the Section 32 exemption way beyond what was thought reasonable when the Press Complaints Commission made an agreement with the Government of the day to allow this exemption for the Press, with the exception of the 7th Principle, up until point of publication. This has been eroded by the interpretation of Lord Phillips, in the Campbell -v- Mirror Group Newspapers, of section 32.

Basically he seemed to ignore the agreement and said that the exemption continues after the time of publication instead of to the point of publication. The resultant fallout of this is that the Commissioner has effectively been castrated in relation to his regulation of the press and media. The government has further compounded this as it has not made any attempt to address this failing – probably due to fear of a backlash from the press.

Whilst phone hacking is a problem for the police to solve, the blagging of personal information is one that the Commissioner can do something about and let’s hope we see a high profile trial come along that can finally put down a marker in the fight against this insidious trade!!

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About KPG Professional Services

Kevin has been working in the Data Protection field for over 20 years with The Post Office, Royal Mail Marketing, The Royal Bank of Scotland and Glasgow Housing Association Ltd. He is also trained in the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 and has supplied expertise and support in this discipline for the past 4 years. In his leisure time Kevin is a presenter on Hospital Radio, an SRU rugby referee and referee coach and also the stadium announcer at McDiarmid Park for his team St Johnstone in the Scottish Premier League.
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