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Lessons from the UK "Phone Hacking" Scandal

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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July 12, 2011

Britain is now enmeshed in a gigantic scandal around privacy invasions by the press and police. It began with revelations about reporters for Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid newspaper News of the World hacking into the voicemail of a murdered young girl, and has expanded as other privacy invasions have come to light.

Yesterday, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused several of Murdoch’s papers of far-reaching invasions of his privacy, including access to tax, bank, and medical records of Brown and his family. Brown told the BBC,

if I, with all the protection and all the defenses and all the security that a chancellor of the Exchequer or a prime minister has, am so vulnerable to unscrupulous tactics, unlawful tactics, methods that have been used in the way we have found, what about the ordinary citizen?

One detail that has emerged in the scandal is that reporters allegedly obtained cellphone tracking data to pinpoint the location of subjects of its reporting. According to the New York Times, former staffers at the tabloid bribed police officials to get the location data, paying almost $500 each time they wanted to “ping” the location of a subject.

This is worth noting for a couple of reasons. It’s a reminder that:

  • Our smartphones, in addition to all the wonderful conveniences they bring, can also serve as location-tracking beacons. As we’ve long pointed out, on a technology level, the world of George Orwell’s 1984 is already here. The only thing holding us back from that nightmare now are our laws and traditions. Unfortunately, our privacy laws and traditions are looking a bit wobbly these days.
  • Privacy invasions can come from many different directions and for many different motivations. In this case it was tabloid news reporters — and no one really knows when they might find themselves subject to 15 minutes of fame through being caught up in some tabloid-worthy incident. Other threats include the government, insurance companies, hackers, and lawyers seeking data in lawsuits.
  • Abuse by corrupt officials is always a threat. Not only did the Murdoch reporters reportedly obtain the location data on their subjects by bribing police officials, but relatively high-ranking police officials reportedly looked the other way when confronted with knowledge of reporters’ hacking into cell phones.
  • The best privacy protection is for records about your activities not to be created or stored in the first place. This is especially true because in today’s world, hackers and attackers have the upper hand — defending information against skilled and determined hackers is difficult. True, your cell phone must, in order to be ready to receive calls or other data, stay in touch with nearby towers, which inevitably reveals your location to your carrier. There is no reason for extended records of your location and travels to be maintained by your carrier, however. Or, shared without a warrant.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court is set to decide whether the police can record people’s movements using tracking devices without a warrant. The case involves GPS devices attached to suspect’s vehicles, but has much broader significance precisely because we all are carrying location-tracking devices these days.

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