Stewart Weir: Phone Hacking

Most of the assembled company were friends, just a few strangers (at least they were to me) amongst them.

During the conversation, one mate started moaning that he couldn’t access his mobile phone voice messages. Quick as a flash, another piped up: “Ask Stewart. He’ll know how to do it – he’s a journalist.”

We had a laugh at that throwaway line before it became apparent that one or two hadn’t seen the funny side of what was said. Indeed, it was quite the opposite, to the extent of being asked if I’d ever done “any of that hacking stuff?”

Of course I hadn’t. Then I made the error of answering the question, “So, how’s it done?”

But as I explained just how simple it is, given how few people have actually changed the factory settings on their mobile phones (or gone for the glaringly obvious ‘secret’ code), I could see the 'penny dropping'. Incredulous, someone remarked: “But anyone could do that.”

And he was right. And on this occasion, it was because of necessity – namely the need for a colleague to access his mobile messages when his phone had gone flat on a foreign trip.

This cautionary tale was from a dozen years ago. Things – like security – were quite different then. So was people’s knowledge of what mobiles were all about.

For instance, during the World Cup in France in 1998, we convinced one colleague that it was possible to speak to local, French journalists on our mobiles because the phones automatically translated the conversation for you. He spent a day or so trying. I’m sure his knowhow has improved since then.

But even when becoming ‘secure’, how many of us have – and still do – make the most basic mistake of setting easy-to-remember numbers?

How many, when asked to set their four or five digit security code have typed in the year they were born, or day and month of their birthday? Or what about 52637 (‘James’ on an old Nokia keypad) or 1888 (the year their beloved Celtic was founded.)

Working that out is hardly rocket science, especially if you have time on your hands, or the prospect of financial gain.

On a slightly different numerical track, I would chuckle when some of my former snooker clients, in trying to keep their mobile number a secret, would then ask their service provider for a number that ended in 147 (snooker’s most famous number) or the even sillier 147147.

Given that mobile numbers begin with 07, and that many players were on the same service contracts as their managers or sponsors, working out an 11-figure mobile number could come down to guessing just two numbers.

I know that at least one of my erstwhile clients thought that he’d been a victim of hacking, years before anyone had ever used the word in relation to mobile messages. Suspicion alone was enough for him to seek a remedy, which proved to be effective, safe and inexpensive. In fact, it saved him money.

He switched his answering and message facility off. If he doesn’t answer, the caller needs to text, thus giving away their identity; not a hassle if they have nothing to hide.

It is that simple. Not that anyone, regardless of background or way of life, should have to resort to such measures.

Stewart Weir, a former chief sportswriter for the Scottish Mirror, is a media and PR consultant who in the past has worked with and advised some of the country's top sportsmen such as Sir Chris Hoy and Stephen Hendry MBE. He also writes a column for caledonianmercury.com.

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