Can phone hacking ever be justified in the public interest?

Can phone hacking ever be justified in the public interest? The Guardian’s investigations editor told the Leveson Inquiry today that in rare cases it could be.

David Leigh said the one occasion he did hack the phone of a businessman was a “minor incident” that seemed “perfectly ethical”. He said, “I don’t hack phones, normally. I’ve never done anything like that since and I’ve never done anything like that before.”

Referring to his admission in a 2006 article, Leigh described that the businessman in question had inadvertently left his PIN on a printout, allowing Leigh to dial straight into his voicemail. In the same article Leigh confessed to “a voyeuristic thrill” in hearing another person’s private messages, but added that, unlike the hacking of phones of members of the royal family carried out at the News of the World by Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, his aim was to expose bribery and corruption, not “witless tittle-tattle.” He added, “unlike the News of the World, I was not paying a private detective to routinely help me with circulation-boosting snippets.”

Leigh also admitted to blagging, having telephoned Mark Thatcher, pretending to be an arms company executive to prove the pair knew each other and had entered into a business deal together. “I give that as an example of when the use of subterfuge is okay,” Leigh said.

Public interest, he said, was the “compass” for journalists, although the boundaries are unclear and judgments on whether to pursue certain stories must be made on a case-by-case basis. When asked about obtaining documents illegally, such as in the case of MPs’ expenses being exposed, Leigh said he believed the “overwhelming” public interest meant the Telegraph was “right to do what it did”.

Leigh went on to highlight the differences between broadsheets and tabloids, arguing that the latter are “incapable of self-regulation.” He said he would be in favour of abolishing the PCC, which he called a “fraud and bogus institution” that works largely to keep the government and royal family off the back of the popular papers.

He argued in favour of punitive damages, which he said would act as a more effective deterrent than Max Mosley’s proposed method of a prior notification system. “Prior restraint,” Leigh said, “is another word for censorship.”

Also speaking today was filmmaker Chris Atkins, who described selling fake celebrity stories to tabloid newspapers. “We called them up, gave them fantastical lies and they wrote them down and published them the next day,” he said, noting one of their most successful, which was featured in the Sun, that claimed Girls Aloud star Sarah Harding was a fan of quantum physics.

Atkins asserted the quote featured in the piece was fake, despite the paper contesting it was from Harding’s PR. Atkins called it a “remarkable coincidence.”

Atkins also described approaching four tabloids with a potential story about celebrity medical secrets, indicating he could provide records. While the Sunday Express deemed it a “legal minefield”, the Sunday People and Sunday Mirror showed interest.

He argued journalists should be disciplined for trying to buy medical records, adding that the Mirror’s reporter in question, Nick Owens, may not have gone on to write a libellous article for the Sun about wrongly arrested Bristol landlord Chris Jefferies had he been punished while at the Mirror.

“Newspapers understand one thing: money,” Atkins said. “The PCC ajudications are as good as meaningless really in terms of correcting mistakes.”

Charlotte Harris, a solicitor for phone hacking victims, was also in the witness box today. She said it was “incredible” and “obstructive” that News International had placed her under surveillance, along with fellow victims’ lawyer Mark Lewis. Farrers, NI’s lawyers, had been suspicious that Lewis and Harris were exchanging confidential information gained from acting for claimants. To then hire a private investigator to survey her, rather than approaching the her firm, Harris said, was the “wrong approach.”

“You shouldn’t have to be suspicious of your opponents in that way,” Harris said, claiming that surveillance “got in the way.”

Also providing evidence was Welsh sales manager Steven Nott, who in 1999 tried to alert the British press and authorities to insecure voicemail systems. Nott said that, during a network outage, Vodafone customer services had told him he could access his own voicemail from another phone by entering a default code. Concerned about the ease of intercepting voicemails, Nott then contacted Oonagh Blackman at the Daily Mirror, who tested the method herself and indicated the story would be published. Nott said he received £100 for the tip, but the story was never printed.

Nott accused the paper of keeping phone hacking methods for their own purposes, adding that Blackman had threatened him with court action if he divulged that he had passed on the information to them.

Alerts he made to the Department of Trade and Industry, the Home Office and HM Customs and Excise also went unheeded, he said.

The hearing continues on Thursday with evidence from various academics.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson.

Wikileaks whistleblowers need care as well as attention

As often is the case with its founder’s outbursts, WikiLeaks’ outraged response to the Guardian’s use of the password to the unredacted version of its US diplomatic cables dump — as a chapter heading in a book — is ironic on several levels.

In a case raised by Index on Censorship late last year, WikiLeaks deleted the name of a dissident author who had secretly spoken with US diplomats, but left in the giveaway title of one of his books, used …as the chapter heading.

We raised it as an example of WikiLeaks lacking the background knowledge needed to properly spot risks to cited individuals. But as was also noted, this was asking a lot of a small organisation.

In that case it was knowledge of books written by obscure dissident academics in small dictatorships. Obscure to WikiLeaks volunteers, that is. Calling in journalists and local activists with broader skills was a good idea. It even made sense on that basis to ask the US government for help in redacting documents stolen from them.

I feel sympathy for the Guardian’s great investigative journalist David Leigh, whose own lack of knowledge in one particular field — passwording protocols and de-encryption — seems to have earned him much of the blame for the “disastrous” release of all 251,287 diplomatic cables in unredacted form.

In recent years the means of secure communications has become dominated by technical “solutions” at the expense of people-centric security measures. I am not technically illiterate. I can write a PHP script or patch a bit of code, but I still struggle with a lot of these systems.

The current over-reliance on encyrption fails to take into account human fallibility. It only takes one person in the circle to misunderstand the instructions and not only is everyone busted, no-one knows until the bad guys act on it.

One dictatorship which broke a communications line of ours this way last year may have waited weeks before showing its hand. It was bluntly done when they did, even though nobody was jailed. The achieved aim was to intimidate, demoralise and spread suspicions among the blameless.

To me the current rack of encryption tools may be too complex, certainly not intuitive enough, for non-expert users to use confidently. Especially when the penalty for a bad installation or a late upgrade can be 20 years in prison. To some of the inventors of such solutions this is our fault for being, well, stupid. But they come from a community not exactly known for their people skills.

I preferred the early days of such communication in the run up to the Kosovo War, when we evaded Rade Markovic’s secret police by use of steganography, which hides secret messages inside an otherwise dull and inoffensive image.

It was easily cracked, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to pass the loaded images across networks where dull holiday photos are normally exchanged. (If you still had to be furtive you hid messages in the kind of pictures shared on the kind of legal but embarassing websites where furtiveness is normal, even expected.)

The idea was, as the spies say, to hide in plain sight. Being furtive only meant you were worth extra surveillance.

But with the kind of anonymising browsers then coming on line, and the new encryption systems that followed, the emphasis shifted to protecting the privacy of the message instead of obscuring the fact that messages were being sent at all.

Logging in to secure communications became a kind of public declaration of furtiveness. Years later a new system, Telex, is looking at reversing the model but is barely into test phase. And it still doesn’t address the basic problem, that technological solutions do not solve human problems.

Looking back over nearly 40 years of careful collection and republication of covertly provided banned documents by Index on Censorship, you see right away that the process is not technical at all, but about protective, supportive, sustaining relationships between people who give and receive information in secret.

Journalists understand this. More relevantly perhaps, so do spies, especially those in the business of “running” agents in hostile, dangerous environments. The literature of espionage has lots to say about the “tradecraft” of covert information exchange. It is as much about the psychology of relations as it is about using invisible ink.

As Salon’s Glenn Greenwald writes, “the acts of deliberate evil committed by the world’s most powerful factions which (WikiLeaks) has exposed vastly outweigh the mistakes which this still-young and pioneering organisation has made.”

But once WikiLeaks stopped being an anonymous dead letter drop and started mediating in the use of that dropped content, it started down the path to ever greater and more direct responsibility for its whistleblowers.

Index on Censorship chief executive John Kampfner commented yesterday: “Sites such as WikiLeaks will continue to emerge, and will have an important role to play. But they should be operated with a great duty of care, both to whistleblowers and to individuals who may find themselves in danger after irresponsible leaks of diplomatic, intelligence or other material.”

The true successor to WikiLeaks will find that protecting the people that provide the information that gives their work a point adds up to more than just lines of code.


Rohan Jayasekera is Associate Editor and Deputy Chief Executive of Index on Censorship