Phone Hacking: A Guide to Journalistic Jackassery


Each week, Death by Science sends out an all-points bulletin for the latest science and technology news, tracks it down and beats a confession out of it. This week, we dive into the seedy world of phone hacking. Beware, it is a process so treacherous, so disgusting and so complex that you may never recover. Wait a second — what is phone hacking?

The ongoing News of the World scandal has introduced “phone hacking” into our lexicon and the term is now at the foreground of our collective consciousness. It conjures up images of techno-espionage: Hackers inhabiting mobile phone waves and fishing out private information to help their evil causes. It looks good splashed on headlines and the term is so insidious that this particular ordeal hasn’t had to rely on the “gate” suffix in order to tell the masses that, yes, this is indeed a scandal.

For all the intrigue and drama that surrounds the term, it’s worth noting that when the mechanics of phone hacking are broken down, they amount to little more than a couple of assholes fucking around with someone’s voicemail box.

The New York Times Magazine spoke with British tabloid journalists last year to find out what steps were taken in order to “hack” someone’s phone:

[O]ne reporter would call the intended victim’s phone, engaging the line. A second reporter would call simultaneously, and would be directed to the voice mail system. There, the default codes could be entered, potentially allowing access to messages.

People rarely change their voicemail codes, so the built-in PIN numbers (often the last four digits of the phone number or another simple sequence) are all it takes to gain access.

Labeling this “hacking” is like saying a child throwing a piggy bank against a wall is executing a “heist.”

Hacking someone’s phone is achingly simple; there are pretty much no steps removed from this gross invasion of privacy and the methods one uses to check their own voicemail.

A U.S.-based journalist for a major British newspaper told us that it was unlikely that the reporters had major moral hang-ups about hacking people’s phones. “They probably thought, ‘This is a bit naughty, possibly illegal, but nothing will come of it. It’s like stealing a bicycle and putting it back in the same place,'” he said.

The News of the World has been accused of other privacy crimes — paying police to locate mobile phone users’ locations and bribing officials for the contact information of members of the royal family, to name a few — but “phone hacking” is the nameplate that was attached to this whole mess.

It was a tool in the tabloid journalist’s kit that was used to sell more newspapers, and now the term “phone hacking” itself is being used to sell newspapers. It’s catchy, sounds cool and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a headline about this scandal that doesn’t include it.

Labeling it “hacking” adds the weight of premeditation to it. Hacking is perceived to be such a complex process that, if performed by a major media publication, it must have been thought out and planned by skilled technicians. It takes what amounts to just another tabloid paper overstepping what moral boundaries they have and turns it into a high-tech assault.

The term “hacking” itself has been clouded by outlandish depictions in television and film. If the movie Hackers is to be believed, the process of hacking into a major bank or oil company’s network involves rollerblading through Grand Central Station, flying through a computer-generated world and skinny-dipping with Angelina Jolie.

In reality, it is a time-consuming and frustrating process. The recent attacks on PayPal, Sony’s PlayStation Network and Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun have been performed by large groups of hackers (Anonymous and LulzSec have taken credit).

What the News of the World did is so far removed from those surgically orchestrated attacks that it’s laughable to call them both “hacks.” But in doing so, the public has excused themselves from any responsibility. Sending paparazzi to a celebrity’s wedding? Sure. Taping Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles having a conversation about tampons? That’s worth reading. But hacking? We never condoned this!

“We’re all getting a bit high-minded about this,” the U.S.-based British journalist told us. “We all regularly pick up tabloids, pay for tabloids and enjoy the stories they print, fully knowing the types of things they do.”

This is not to pardon what the News of the World did as “business as usual.” It’s essential to remember that the sleaze tactics used to find out what soccer player is sleeping with what model were used on a murdered schoolgirl and possibly the victims of terrorist attacks. We are not the News Corp.-owned Times of London, saying that we’ve had a “bellyful of phone-hacking.

Phone hacking is just another example of tabloid journalists being jackasses. They didn’t spend time in the seedy cybercrime underground picking up tips and tricks from elite computer criminals. That would be giving them far too much credit.

This isn’t even Matthew Broderick in War Games. No one is playing a supercomputer in tic-tac-toe.

The News of the World has shuttered its windows, people have been and will be going to jail and Rupert Murdoch was hit in the face with a pie.

None of that will stop the tabloids from breaking the rules in order to get a scoop. They may avoid phone hacking for a while, but they will quickly find another method that is just as effective and invasive.

It’s anyone’s guess what catchy name we’ll give that.