From Lester Freamon to Andy Coulson, how phone taps became a security issue

Opinion by Dan Raywood

News reports have circulated in recent days surrounding the News of the World phone tapping scandal, with the issue of personal security and surveillance discussed.

News reports have circulated in recent days surrounding the News of the World phone tapping scandal, with the issue of personal security and surveillance discussed.

The news reports circulating around Andy Coulson, formerly editor of the News of the World and current director of communications and planning for the Conservative Party and Prime Minister David Cameron, claim that he approved the use of phone hacking on notable figures such as actress Gwyneth Paltrow, PR guru Max Clifford and Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA).

Aside from the legalities of this case, and the impact upon modern journalism and the personal privacy of those victims already known and the rest who are yet to be uncovered, there is a serious issue of the capabilities of phone hacking.

Simeon Coney, VP of business development and strategy at AdaptiveMobile, claimed that aside from major public figures, anyone could be at risk. After all, how can you tell if you have been affected, and what can you do to stay protected?

One of the main problems, according to Coney, is that in the majority of alleged cases the term phone tapping actually refers to illegally accessing new or saved voicemails, and anyone who has not changed their voicemail pin from the network default could be at risk.

He said: “Whilst the media report cases of celebrities or politicians who've been targeted, any individual or organisation who might receive potentially confidential information through voicemail inbox should take time to ensure they are protected.”

Coney claimed that there are a couple of tell-tale signs that might show if a phone has been affected: if you receive a notification of new voicemail but when you dial in to listen to the message they're all listed as 'old' or ‘saved' messages; or if voicemails are disappearing, as it has also been claimed that some tabloids have not only been listening to messages, but also deleting them to avoid rival publications getting hold of the same information.

“In order to protect a voicemail inbox from being vulnerable to this kind of illegal remote access, it is vital to change the access pin from the network default. These defaults can be found with a simple Google search and that's all that's needed to tap into any voicemail. Applications such as HulloMail and O2 Visual Voicemail can also add an extra level of protection by encrypting the bank of messages, removing them from the network and placing them directly on the mobile device itself,” he said.

“It's also important to note that mobile use across voice, SMS, email and data is continuing to increase and as such we are likely to see incidences of these kinds of threats continue to rise and also extend into new areas.”

Coney pointed out that although now illegal, downloadable SMS-hacking software is available online, and the likelihood of attempts to remotely access text messages will increase also.

He said: “Across these different aspects of mobile communication, we're seeing the operator community extend solid multi-bearer protection across their networks to ensure users are protected as new threats continue to emerge.”

Although not a new sensation, viewers of The Wire will be aware of the capabilities of phone tapping in police work. The fact that this has hit the headlines to such an extent is beneficial to personal security. As much as we talk about the need to change passwords and be aware of suspicious activity with our email and finances, perhaps it is time to apply that to our mobile phones also.


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