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Law Guides: Phone Hacking

Phone hacking is among the most modern crimes out there. Its prevalence is now so great that it seems to be routinely perpetrated by individuals and organisations alike. The crimes committed by News of the World journalists seem to be unexceptional when it comes to the use of phone hacking in the media but hacking is now much more widespread.

A Google search for “phone hacking” reveals ‘how-to’ websites as some of the top results. This is hardly surprising given the ease with which a phone can be hacked, particularly if it is unsecured. This edition of the Law Guide series will cover phone hacking and protection laws.

Why are our mobile phones so vulnerable?

A study has shown that in the UK we spend on average 1 hour 46 minutes on our phones each day and that number skyrockets when you look at the phone usage of millennials.

Since in that time we use our phones for everything from shopping to ordering a taxi, it is hardly surprising that our mobiles are extremely vulnerable. The smartphone in particular constitutes easy pickings for a phone hacker and your mobile number or email address is all the information a hacker needs. If you click on a malicious link received via text or email it will allow a hacker to read your texts, listen to your calls and track the location of your phone.

An unsuspecting person’s unsecured smartphone can also be used as a middleman for hackers to redirect harmful traffic and frame the owner of the phone as the culprit. It is not only criminals who have used the smartphones of civilians to cover their hacking activities – government security agencies such as UK’s GCHQ have also implemented this technique in their covert investigations.

What’s the law against phone hacking?

Before 2000, the activities of intelligence agencies had been regulated by unpublished guidelines but this form of regulation failed a legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights.

The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 now covers hacking into messages on mobile phones as well as phone tapping and other forms of similar information gathering.

Access to confidential databases is governed by the Data Protection Act 1998 which makes it an offence to access such data without authorisation. Unlike the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the Data Protection Act contains a public interest defence.

As a result of these two legislative provisions, phone hacking is not only a criminal offence – it is also a breach of an individual’s right to privacy. However, given the ease with which phone hacking can be perpetrated and the difficulty of tracing the real culprit, the focus has shifted to prevention rather than legal recourse.

How can you protect yourself?

The National Crime Agency has published online safety guidelines, and a lot of preventative measures are simply common sense. As the owners and users of smartphones, it is our responsibility to protect our devices from hackers and installing mobile antivirus software is one of the easiest ways of achieving this.

While phones do come with built-in security software, hackers are developing sophisticated techniques to break through these barriers so a dedicated antivirus app will provide far better protection than your phone’s default software alone. Many of these antivirus apps are also free which makes downloading one a no-brainer. Android phones are among the most vulnerable due to the more open nature of the operating system as compared with Apple’s iOS.  

While there are legislative protections in place, phone hacking, like all cyber crime, remains notoriously difficult to trace and the laws against it can be difficult to enforce. Ultimately, any measures you can take to protect yourself will be well worth it and installing an antivirus app is one of the easiest. So next time you pick up your smartphone, consider just how safe your data really is – I know I will!

Words: Mariya Rankin

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