The recent phone hacking scandal has been attracting a lot of news recently. And in my opinion: for all the wrong reasons:
- Calling it "hacking" is very misleading.. An insult to hackers all over the world. Anybody could have done the same thing the journalist did. We just had ethics.
- Blaming the journalists is almost missing the point. When you get your house broken into, blaming the burglars is OK. But if you left both doors and windows wide open, then you can't accuse the burglars of being master criminals.
Using the term "hacking" is very misleading. The dictionary definitions usually refer to somebody with a high level of skill in their area of expertise - usually in computing. The media's definition appears to be closer to "cyber vandal". Regardless of which definition you chose, it is simply the wrong term to use for the scandal.
Although what the journalists did was unethical and probably illegal, it did not require any special skills: They simply used the voicemail facilities that the telephone networks provide: The ability to pick up your voicemail from a different number. Most providers provide this facility - and most do not demand that users set up a PIN before activating it. And the instructions are free for all to read:
- Vodafone: How I pick up my voicemail messages from another phone?
- O2: To retrieve your voicemail messages from a landline (even has a default PIN!)
All that a budding private detective needs is the phone number of the victim celebrity and make a few guesses at what network the victim is on. Easy.
But what if it is protected by a PIN? Probably not a problem - studies have shown that people are not good at choosing PINs - 15% of them take no more than 10 guesses. And there is no limit to the number of guesses a journalist can take - at worst he'll have to just ring up again.
The lack of PINs looks like an unsolveable problem:
- Users don't know (or can't be bothered) with setting a PIN
- Phone networks have no incentive to force people to set one. It would get in the way of usability.
- Some minority of Journalists are ... ethically challenged and want to sell newspapers
- Somebody out there actually buys newspapers (not me!)
- Rupert Murdoch profits (not really relevant to my point, but nevermind...)
What to do?
I can think of several things:
- Don't become a celebrity
- Avoid mobile phones
- Turn off voicemail
- Set a proper (unusual) PIN code
- Force phone networks to pre-set a PIN, and send it to you. Just like the PIN for your credit card
- Record an outgoing message telling callers to hang up
- Record an outgoing message telling callers that the call will be charged at £8.47/minute
- Record an outgoing message - but not with your own voice. Callers will think they got the wrong number
- Stop the nonsense about phone hacking - sue the newspapers for copyright infringement instead. Much bigger penalties
- Get the journalists to hack each other's phones instead. They read each other's newspapers anyway
Unfortunately, I cannot think of a solution which has the effect that I REALLY want: allow ME to make a profit on it...
Well... Perhaps next time.