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The real role for government in the phone-hacking scandal is to ensure people's privacy

    Our intern Tom Waters dicusses the News of the World phone-hacking scandal


    The phone hacking case of Milly Dowler has added a whole new dimension to the long-running saga. There is no doubt that the scrutiny now afforded to the issue will result in hourly new cases and examples of the practice – and it appears journalists will now face the same spotlight afforded to politicians during the expenses scandal. Many politicians might, indeed, see this as a revenge for that very period. But it is easy, in times like these, for knee-jerk reactions. The ‘something must be done’ crowd have risen, and already we have seen calls for blocked takeovers, greater state regulation of the media and ‘new guidelines’ about journalistic practice.

    However, there are two things to note here. Firstly, this is a police matter, not a political one. Phone hacking is a crime and was a crime when the Milly Dowler hacking occurred. The journalists involved will be prosecuted by the law, should they be found guilty. Hence, it doesn’t seem clear at all why there should be further political regulation, when the practice is already illegal. After all, presumably if the police considered phone hacking to be a prevalent enough problem, a specific department could be set up specifically for the purpose of monitoring it. But this would be run by the police, not as separate government regulator.

    Certainly, there should be a full judicial review into the matter; but it ought to be kept strictly within the bounds of the legal issues at hand. Because of this, John Prescott’s call for the takeover of BskyB to be blocked is inappropriate. Whether the takeover should go ahead ought to be judged by the economic merit of allowing further monopolisation of the media market by News International; not as an opportunity for flexing political muscle against the latest ‘bad guy’. It is the job of Ofcom, not politicians, to determine whether News International are ‘fit and proper persons’ to have so much control over so much of the press.

    The second interesting question in this matter is the one nobody seems to be asking: why does phone hacking seem to be so easy? As more of the story is uncovered, it has transpired that the hacking was done by regular journalists, not a crack team of computer experts. Much of it was done through the hackers simply ringing up the voicemail of the target, and typing in the default PIN code when asked – which itself can be easily found on the internet. A slightly more advanced technique – involving ‘spoofing’ ones mobile number so it tricks the voicemail into thinking that you’re ringing from the phone you want to hack – was used, but this too required little in the way of technical know-how.

    This begs the question – why were the voicemails left so unprotected? Perhaps the networks were simply unaware of the threat – it was only after the scandal came out that they took (some) steps to secure their voicemail systems (although they are still susceptible if predictable PINs are chosen – such as the customer’s birthday). Or possibly the networks just didn’t consider it worth their while to put in place systems to protect what is probably just a few hundred or so customers who’ve been subject to hacking; the vast majority of their clientele aren’t worried about being hacked at all. After all, you probably haven’t changed your voicemail PIN from the default even though you’re reading a blog about it. There might simply not be enough of a demand for secure voicemail.

    So if there is to be any political might used on this matter, surely it should be in this area, the protection of the privacy of individuals – undoubtedly one of the most basic tasks of government. If a regulator is to be set up, it should be on the phone security end of things - not the media end. What we need is not further encroachment of the state into the media, but perhaps a careful review of how we can best ensure that mobile networks are protecting individual privacy.

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