Privilege: Hacking of Members' mobile phones - Standards and Privileges Committee Contents

What is phone hacking?

6.  For the purposes of this inquiry, we have interpreted the term 'hacking' to mean the gaining of unauthorised direct access to a remotely stored mobile telephone communication. 'Hacking' is thus distinct from 'bugging' or 'tapping', which involves the use of a device to intercept a communication in real time. Related to hacking is 'blagging', which we understand to mean the process by which a person obtains information—such as a mobile telephone number and/or a personal identification number (PIN)—which enables access to the stored messages. Blagging involves impersonation of a person who is entitled to know the information. In this Report, we use the term 'hacking' to include 'blagging.'

7.  It is not always necessary to blag in order to hack. Many mobile phone users do not reset the default PINs supplied by service providers. If a hacker already knows the number of the mobile telephone number he or she intends to hack, it may be possible to gain access to messages by using one of the common default PINs. There are also sophisticated and commercially available programmes (some of them illegal in the UK) which can provide access to communications as well as to stored messages, without the phone-owner's knowledge. However, diligent adherence to the security advice made available by providers to users can mitigate vulnerabilities and greatly reduce the ease with which unauthorised access can occur. Despite this, it is worth noting that users who access voicemail from abroad can be particularly vulnerable to hacking.[5]

8.  There are obvious similarities between hacking and the gaining of unauthorised access to written communications—which as well as interception of mail might include going through the contents of a dustbin. However, the ability of a hacker to gain access to messages remotely means that analogies between the two are not straightforward. In practice, hacking may often be easier to carry out than interception of written communications.

9.  Hacking is said to be carried out by journalists, private investigators and others, for a variety of purposes. The allegations which have led to our inquiry relate to activities allegedly carried out by or on behalf of journalists, in order to obtain information of interest to them or to those who pay them. In this Report, for the reasons given above, we are not concerned with the truth or otherwise of those allegations. We confine ourselves to a discussion of whether and if so in what circumstances hacking of Members' mobile phones could be a contempt of Parliament.

5   We are grateful to the Parliamentary Security Coordinator for briefing us on technical aspects of our inquiry. Back

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