DPC in talks with mobile operators over phone hacking fears

18 Jul 2011

The mobile phone hacking scandal could result in the European Commission passing legislation aimed at protecting consumers in the future. However, banning remote access to voicemail altogether is not the solution, a Labour TD says.

The decision by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner to contact mobile phone operators in the fallout of the News of the World phone hacking scandal is a step in the right direction to protect customers’ privacy, the Labour Party said.

However, the Data Protection Commissioner’s proposals to have the remote access to voicemail messages removed altogether from mobile phones is wrong, said Joe Costello, TD.

“It is the equivalent of using a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Remote access to voicemail messages is valuable technology and enhances the uses of mobile phones, particularly for travellers or holiday-makers in this global world.”

It emerged over the weekend that Data Protection Commissioner Gary Davis contacted each of the mobile network operators in Ireland as fears mounted that private investigators accessed Irish numbers.

The situation has now spiralled in the UK with News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks stepping down and subsequently being arrested amid allegations journalists paid investigators to access people’s mobile phones and that police officers received bribes from journalists.

Britain’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson is the latest to resign in relation to phone hacking revelations.

The scandal is now threatening to erupt in the US, with allegations emerging that Fox News also used phone hacking to access the phone messages of 9/11 victims and their families.

The future for remote voicemail access

Remote access to voice messages has been a fixture of mobile networks since the 1990s and usually involves dialling a number, inserting a specific digit and then relying on default phone password settings to listen to the messages. It means that if a phone user hasn’t changed the password on their messaging system on their phone, a perfect stranger can dial up and listen in. The only indication that your phone has been hacked is you have missed messages because they have been deleted after being listened to.

Costello says proposals emanating from the Department of Communications on the issue are inadequate.

“In reply to my adjournment motion in the Dáil on Thursday, the minister placed the entire responsibility on avoiding hacking on the users of the mobile phone. This is totally unreasonable and unimplementable.

“It is imperative that the onus be placed firmly and squarely on the mobile phone companies to install security measures on the mobile phones to prevent unauthorised access to mobile phone data.

“As chairperson of the European Affairs Committee, I will be asking the European Commission to include the protection of mobile phone consumers in its annual work programme with a view to issuing a European directive in the near future,” Costello said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years