Frank M-Ahearn

The truth behind hacking? It’s a global business – and journalists are the least of it

The dark art of stealing personal information is not confined to newspapers, as a former practitioner explains

‘Hi, this is Mr Pretext from mobile phone activations. Our systems are down and I need you to bring up a customer’s mobile account for me please.’ I must have repeated this lie thousands of times in the past 20 years. It helped me gain access to information — criminal records, social security numbers, phone logs — that I would then hand on to all sorts of clients: journalists, insurers, cuckolded husbands and even policemen. As an American who spent many years in this underground industry, I can tell you that the British phone-hacking scandal has exposed only a tiny part of a vast criminal network.

In the old days, private investigators would peer through letterboxes or ransack the bins of their targets. In the past ten to 15 years, however, technology has multiplied the ways in which people like me can snoop on people like you. Mobile phone records, health records, anything that is held digitally can be accessed. My working day would start with a request to find phone records of one person, or the bank statement of another, or maybe the criminal record of a third. I’d find private details through utility companies, shops or frequent-flyer schemes. Then I’d pick up the phone and start blagging — or, as we called it in my part of the trade, pretexting: lying to extract personal details.

Glenn Mulcaire, the man at the centre of the News of the World case, was a professional footballer before he became an investigator. If that surprises you, it shouldn’t. What I did for a living — and what detectives acting for tabloid journalists are alleged to have done for a living — was hardly technical. It’s not hacking, in the sense of requiring computer programming skills or sophisticated manipulation of telecoms systems. All I needed was the ability to lie convincingly.

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