The latest revelations in the phone-hacking scandal have prompted the suspension of a News of the World executive, but they also raise serious concerns about security — and possible corruption — at mobile phone companies, Brian Cathcart writes
The News of the World, Andy Coulson and the Metropolitan Police are all in even deeper trouble now because of the phone hacking scandal, but there is another powerful group who should be worried: the phone companies. The more victims of hacking that are identified, the less plausible it is that the hackers operated in a haphazard, one-at-a-time fashion, and the more likely it is that they were systematic. And if they were systematic that raises the serious possibility that there was corruption at the phone companies.
When Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman of the News of the World were jailed in 2007, the story told in court was that Mulcaire adopted a relatively crude procedure to gain access to the voicemail messages of victims. First he got their numbers. Then he tried the standard procedure for remote access to voicemails, and when required to enter a PIN, he used the default code, which he knew. If the victim had overrridden the default and created his or her own PIN, Mulcaire would then blag it. Blagging is a confidence trick: he would call the technical desk at the phone company pretending to be an employee working on a problem with that phone and he would ask for it to be returned to the default PIN. For this he needed his own employee password, although in the only instance that was closely explored in court in 2007 he simply used bluff and charm instead.
The idea that an outsider can have your mobile phone settings altered with such ease is pretty shocking, but it is also the case that a lot can go wrong for the hacker in this procedure if phone company staff are even passably vigilant. Perhaps we can imagine Mulcaire getting away with it five times in a few months, or even ten times. What is very hard to imagine is that he did so dozens or even hundreds of times over a year or so — and there is even a possibility that the number of victims runs into the thousands.
Nobody has that much charm. If Mulcaire was doing this systematically he had to have systematic access to PINs, just as he had to have systematic access to mobile phone numbers. (Remember, Sienna Miller changed her phone twice in one year because she suspected hacking, and each time Mulcaire swiftly got hold of both the new number and the voicemail PIN.) And if Mulcaire had systematic access to phone company data that raises the very worrying possibility that people inside those companies were knowingly helping him, and that would be corruption.
For some reason the Metropolitan Police do not seem to be in the least bit concerned or interested in the implications of this. They have been in possession of Mulcaire’s papers since August 2006 but there is no evidence that they have ever questioned the phone companies about their role. If, however, the files were given to another police force to investigate, perhaps something would be done.
One further note. People keep writing about Mulcaire, the private investigator, as if he was not an employee of News of the World. He was. For one thing, he worked for them year after year on a full-time, explicitly exclusive contract worth more than £100,000 a year, and for another, after he was released from jail they made a payment to him of £80,000 on the basis that he had been a full-time employee and was entitled to severance. (It must have been severance because otherwise it would have been a bribe to keep him silent, and it couldn’t have been that, could it?) Glenn Mulcaire may not have had a desk in the Wapping newsroom but he was no wayward, out-of-control freelance. He was on the News of the World staff.
Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London. Follow him on twitter at @BrianCathcart