Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man: Anyone can be a phone hacker

To play this joke, you need a friend who’s flying abroad.

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To play this joke, you need a friend who’s flying abroad.

To play this joke, you need a friend who’s flying abroad. Just log on to any website that allows you to send anonymous texts and, while the friend is in mid-flight, send an SMS to his phone (let’s assume he is landing in Cape Town) along the following lines: ‘Vodacom international roaming service welcomes you to South Africa. For emergencies dial 112. For voicemail dial 191, you fat beardie twat.’ Obviously it adds to the general hilarity here if the person receiving this is bearded and fat. (Male is preferable, too, as women are all too liable to take offence.)

Now I’m not saying this is the funniest gag in the world, but it still amuses me from time to time, one in a line of telephone-enabled jokes stretching from the first days of telephony (‘get off the line, there’s a train coming’) to Channel 4’s magnificent Fonejacker. It’s nothing new. The Bell Company’s decision to stop hiring teenage boys to operate its manual exchanges was made in part because women were less inclined to play practical jokes.

As telephone equipment gets more complex, opportunities for this kind of thing have multiplied. Our office now has those fancy IP-enabled telephone handsets, which you can control remotely via the web. When programming the ‘quick-dial’ numbers which appear on the screen on my phone, it occurred to me that it was fantastically unlikely anyone else would have changed the default PIN for their phone (usually 1234 or 0000). This allowed me to alter colleagues’ telephones so that, instead of boring and worthy numbers such as ‘Home’, ‘Important Client’, ‘Jolyon (School)’, or ‘Gym’ their phones displayed more interesting quick-dial numbers — ‘Spearmint Rhino, Prague’, or simply ‘Monique’ (it is impossible for anyone to have an innocent relationship with someone called Monique). Oh how we all laughed. Well I did. One colleague was less amused when his wife visited his office, but it was mostly harmless. And at no point in this escapade did I consider myself a phone hacker. To describe this as phone hacking would be rather like accusing someone of hacking your newspaper when they read it over your shoulder.

I make this point to explain the News of the World scandal, and why the word ‘hacking’, with its suggestion of technological complexity, is misleading. Almost no one changes the remote access code to their mobile voicemail. Which meant that for years, once you knew the default number, it was easy to access anyone’s voicemail simply by knowing their phone number. But why would you do that, except for nefarious purposes? You wouldn’t. Unless, that is, you were a student or a schoolboy between 2000 and 2011, in which case there was a more innocent motive behind the action. A gag. Not to listen to a friend’s messages, but to change his outgoing-message to something ridiculous. ‘Hi, this is Bob. I’m too wasted to answer the phone right now...’

My guess is that 50 per cent of people at school or university in the last decade knew this trick. Which means 50 per cent of young tabloid journalists knew it too. It would have occurred to dozens of them independently that this could be used with sinister intent. Broadsheet journalists, being the swotty type, would never think of it. But to the craftier, prank-loving tabloid journalist it would have been second nature. So the likelihood that this practice was confined to only one newspaper seems tiny. And the idea that it was an ‘operation’ requiring ‘authorisation’ is silly. A little of the blame lies with the networks for leaving this loophole open for so long. But it isn’t ‘hacking’. Any bright 17-year-old could have done it. To understand is not to forgive here. But the idea of a sophisticated conspiracy is mistaken.

Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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