British Watergate: The scandals mount against Murdoch's empire

The hacking scandal threatening Rupert Murdoch's media empire grows deeper with allegations that private investigators working for the firm targeted not only mobile phones, but also credit card and bank accounts.

Kevin Anderson July 12, 2011 18:02:02 IST
British Watergate: The scandals mount against Murdoch's empire

The hacking scandal threatening Rupert Murdoch's media empire grows deeper by the day with allegations that private investigators working for the firm targeted not only mobile phones, but also credit card and bank accounts, medical records and and possibly computers.

The focus of the scandal has been 'hacking' into mobile phone voicemail inboxes of as many as 4,000 people. However, it wasn't that the private investigators hired by the News of the World were computer geniuses capable of picking digital locks with ease. In most instances, the owners of the phones had never changed the default passwords to their voicemail, usually something simple like “0000” or “1234”.

In other instances, money changed hands for phone records. Quoting sources in Scotland Yard, The New York Times is alleging that reporters for the News of the World paid for access to the mobile phone location information from the police themselves.

British Watergate The scandals mount against Murdochs empire

Until the revelations stop, it will be hard to tell how large the threat is to Rupert Murdoch's media empire. AFP

It is possible to track a mobile phone user by calculating their position based on the mobile phone masts providing the handset with service. Usually mobile phone companies only release this information to law enforcement and security agencies, but former reporters are now saying that they paid police for 'pinging', locating people via their mobile phones.

Allegations are also surfacing that the paper got credit card details, bank details and even medical records. The Guardian revealed that former chancellor of the exchequer and Prime Minister Gordon Brown was the target of not only the News of the World but also the Times, also a part of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

In an interview with the BBC, Brown asked, "If I, with all the protection and all the defences and all the security that a chancellor of the exchequer or a prime minister has, is so vulnerable to unscrupulous tactics, unlawful tactics, to methods that have been used in the way that we've found — what about the ordinary citizen?"

Again, the private investigators hired by the News of the World weren't breaking into the computers of the banks and the health service. Instead, they used what hackers call "social engineering", which is just a technical way of saying they trick you or someone with access to your information into giving up passwords, PINs or actual information.

British journalists refer to it as blagging. Journalists or private investigators working for them will simply ring up the bank or health service and pretend to be either the person a colleague of the person who desperately needs the information.

Guardian senior reporter Ian Cobain explained the practice and gave an example of a blag or pretext call:

"In the early 90s when the News of the World was attempting to prove that a Tory cabinet minister was the father of a young woman's illegitimate child, a private eye rang the woman's GP, pretending to be from an emergency department. The detective told the GP that the woman had been involved in an accident and would probably die, and asked the doctor to reveal the identity of the father of her child."

The revelations grow by the day with additional people stepping forward with either allegations or concerns that they think might be part of this growing scandal.

Two sex bloggers who wrote under pseudonyms are now looking into whether their computers were hacked. Zoe Margolis, of the Girl With A One-Track Mind blog, and Brooke Magnanti, who wrote the Belle du Jour blog and book of the same name, say they both received suspicious emails that might have been part of a campaign to install malicious software on their computers.

Magnanti wrote about the incident on her new blog, Sexonomics. She had received an email from a journalist at the Sunday Times that said, “Come on Belle, not even a little hint?” It had an attachment. She said:

“The attachment started downloading automatically (then if I remember correctly, came up with a "failed to download" message).

My heart sank - my suspicion was that there had been a program attached to the message, some sort of trojan, presumably trying to get information from my computer.”

Something similar happened to Margolis, and she asked on Twitter:

Quick geek question: emails from Sunday Times were opened on my old Windows PC. How should I go about having it looked at (for evidence)?

The scandal is growing deeper by the day with many calling it a British Watergate, a reference to the scandal that brought down US President Richard Nixon. Until the revelations stop, it will be hard to tell how large the threat is to Rupert Murdoch's media empire. Up until now, the revelations have been a drip here and a drip there, but now, they are a flood. Murdoch will have to find a way to stem this tide.

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