While the Murdoch goons at the Super Soaraway Currant Bun brace themselves for court action - phone hacking cases against the Sun, scores of them, are due to be heard next month - new technology may well have rendered that kind of thing obsolete. But before all those people who found themselves on the wrong end of the hacking frenzy breathe a sigh of relief, they might be interested to know what that technology represents.
Phone hacking, or phone tapping as some call it, involves having the target’s mobile number, then ringing it when the target is away from the phone or in conversation on it, and ultimately finding that the voicemail box is still set to its default password. Once access has been gained to that voicemail, the hacker can find out who has been leaving messages, and more to the point, what they are saying in them.
But, as the man said in The Ipcress File, it’s crude and old-fashioned. For starters, hacking is so easily traceable that those doing it regularly had to change phones at frequent intervals. Call records showed who was doing the hacking. And we now know what happens when those who do the hacking, and those who put them up to it, get caught.
So now we have what is effectively phone hacking 2.0 - phone tracking. Just imagine the ease with which this technology works: you obtain the mobile number of the target, and whenever it is powered on, it shows up on the map - on a Google Maps interface if you want. It’s easy to deduce if your target is travelling by road or rail. You can put a tail on them or have someone watching the station when they fetch up in town.
Think this is far fetched? Joseph Cox begs to differ. He’s laid out in the Daily Beast the kinds of firms selling this technology, noting “whereas this used to be a fairly niche product, now a myriad of companies based all over the world offer this service to law enforcement and intelligence agencies”. And anyone else prepared to pay for it.
So who’s in this particular marketplace? “Wolf Intelligence is a German company that offers … a product that can ‘report the location of a specific mobile phone device anywhere in the world, if within the range of the nearest antennae’ … Almenta Group, with offices in Hong Kong and Bulgaria, advertises a similar product called ‘Observer’ that provides ‘worldwide geo location’”. And remember about Google Maps?
“A brochure for ‘Observer’ shows that armed with just a target’s mobile phone number, the phone’s location can be found and displayed on a Google Maps interface”. Anyone else? “Israeli firm Picsix lists its P6-GEO product, which the company says ‘provides operational agencies the ability to locate, track and covertly manipulate GSM & UMTS subscribers virtually anywhere in the world’”. And there are other players.
“Other firms involved in global tracking services include Circles from Bulgaria; Cleversig; Ukraine-based Proximus; Intercept Monitoring Systems from Russia and Trovicor, which claims to have an office in Pakistan”. Cox also notes the concern “that private surveillance firms, which are largely free to sell to whomever they can within export restrictions, may provide their services to agencies that usually wouldn’t have this sort of international capability, and which could then spy on the U.S.”
Or on press’ targets in order to prop up flagging circulations. You have been warned.