Your 1st place for FoI News
RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • The Dark Arts of Hacking and Blagging

    Posted on July 10th, 2009 admin No comments

    A more traditional way of intercepting information

    A more traditional way of intercepting information

    When the outgoing Information Commissioner said Data Protection was no longer considered ‘nerdy’ did he realise just how soon it would vault into the ‘sexy’ category.




    With the latest row over phone hacking we have all the traditional ingredients of a front page scoop: money, power, celebrity and for good measure a bit of conspiracy thrown in as well.

    Before I launch into my views on the topic I should declare an interest in that I work for the News of the World as many of my Freedom of Information stories have appeared in the pages of the country’s No.1 selling paper. However, just so that you can rest easy I have never done anything illegal.

    My beef with the current moral outrage that is gathering to oust the former News of the World editor from his job and probe the murky affairs of the media is simple – the vast majority of the information is not new.

    A large chunk of the detail being debated across the airwaves now was in fact uncovered by the Information Commissioner in 2006 and published in a detailed report.

    Also a distinction has to be made between ‘blagging’ and ‘hacking’. The former is the process by which somebody will either pose as somebody they are not or hire a private detective to pose as that person with the aim of teasing personal details out of a third party. This activity, although many might frown upon it is not illegal, IF it can be justified by a public interest defence.

    Hacking on the other hand is illegal and is the criminal means by which people will tap into the recorded voice messages on a third party’s phone.

    The current furore centres on details that were thrown up in the wake of case of News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and his private eye associate who were jailed for their part in hacking into a member of the Royal Family’s mobile. It was the extra detail in the court papers of this case that led to Gordon Taylor bringing his private action against the same newspaper which the Guardian have reported was settled out of court for £700,000.

    Those journalists involved in hacking should be worried - as Clive Goodman’s two-month stretch in prison should prove.

    But the details uncovered by the Information Commissioner in a separate case – called Operation Motorman – seem to be getting mixed in with the hacking allegations.

    In that case the Information Commissioner discovered following a raid at a private detective’s office the scale of ‘blagging’ that was being carried out. He even produced a menu of the personal information that could be extracted:

    Vehicle check at the DVLA - £150 - £200

    Ex-directory telephone number - £65 - £75

    Checks at the DVLA - £150 - £200

    Criminal Records check - £500

    Getting the address linked to a tele no - £75


    Also uncovered in this raid were the links to publications that had paid for blagging. Below is a table showing the publication, the number of transactions and the number of its journalists involved.


    Daily Mail                             952         58

    Sunday People                  802         50

    Daily Mirror                        681         45

    Mail on Sunday                                 266         33

    News of the World          228         23

    Sunday Mirror                   143         25

    Best Magazine                  134         20

    Evening Standard             130         1

    The Observer                    103         4

    Daily Sport                          62           4

    The People                         37           19

    Daily Express                      36           7

    Weekend (Daily Mail)    30           4

    Sunday Express                                29           8

    The Sun                                24           4

    Closer Magazine               22           5

    Sunday Sport                     15           1

    Night and Day (MoS)      9              2

    Sunday Business News 8              1

    Daily Record                       7              2

    Saturday (Express)          7              1

    Sunday Mirror Mag         6             1

    Real Magazine                   4              1

    Woman’s Own                  4              2

    The Sunday Times           4              1

    Daily Mirror Magazine    3              2

    Mail in Ireland                   3              1

    Daily Star                             2              4

    The Times                           2              1

    Marie Claire                        2              1

    Personal Magazine          1              1

    Sunday World                    1              1


    As you can see the News of the World is not the worst ‘offender’ and with over 100 deals the Guardian’s sister paper the Observer is obviously no stranger to these techniques.

    The following is an extract from the Information Commissioner’s report into the probe:

    The secondary documentation seized at the same premises consisted of the detective’s own hand-written personal notes and a record of work carried out, about whom and for whom. This mass of evidence documented literally thousands of section 55 offences, and added many more identifiable reporters supplied with information, bringing the total to some 305 named journalists.

    Just as revealing were the interviews conducted with individuals whose privacy had been violated. As one would expect, they included a number of celebrities and others in the public eye such as professional footballers and managers, well-known broadcasters, a member of the royal household and others with royal connections, and a woman going through well-publicised divorce proceedings.

    But they also included people caught up in the celebrity circuit only incidentally, such as the sister of the partner to a well-known local politician and the mother of a man once linked romantically to a Big Brother contestant.

    Among this last group was a mother whose show-business daughter had featured in a number of lurid press stories about her private life and whose family was subject to intense media probing. Details of the mother’s telephone calls and cars owned appeared among the private detective’s ledgers and records of financial transactions.

    A few of the individuals caught up in the detective’s sights either had no obvious newsworthiness or had simply strayed by chance into the limelight, such as the self-employed painter and decorator who had once worked for a lottery winner and simply parked his van outside the winner’s house. This group included a greengrocer, a hearing-aid technician, and a medical practitioner subsequently door-stepped by a Sunday newspaper in the mistaken belief that he had inherited a large sum of money from a former patient.

    A number of those interviewed reported subsequent media intrusion into their lives, after their details had been passed on to the press. All were emphatic that they had not willingly supplied information about themselves, nor would they have consented to its release.

    And what happened to the private detective in this case – did the full weight of the law come down on him – oh yeah he got an 18-month community order with a provision he attends counselling sessions to combat his drinking (link to Daily Telegraph article).

    Below is a cut-out-and-keep guide to blagging which was reproduced in the Information Commissioner’s report.


    British Rail/London Transport Lost Property Blag

    This is to discover what connection the person you are ringing up has with the person under investigation OR what the address of the person under investigation is from friends and/or relatives.

    You can therefore use this blag to discover the nature of a relationship.

    You go on as British Rail (or London Transport) Lost Property

    In this example the telephone number you wish to establish connection with is 081-450 4321 and belongs to Mr Wilson.

    4321 Hello.

    Agent/BR  Hello. Is Mr Wilson there please?

    [Or if you only have the telephone number you go straight onto the bit where you explain who you are and why you want the information

    “Hello, it’s British Rail lost property here...”]

    Respondent …Yes, speaking. Who’s calling?

    Agent/BR British Rail Lost Property. I’m sorry to bother you but we’ve had a [Wallet, Purse, Filofax etc] handed into our office belonging to a Mr [Give subject’s name] but no address. We wish to return the item as quickly as possible. We did, however, find your [name and telephone] number in the diary in Mr [Subject] wallet/handbag so we assumed you knew Mr [Subject] and could therefore give us any useful information that could help get this back to Mr [Subject]. [DO NOT ask directly for the address or phone number as this is too direct].

    [At this stage they may offer you a phone number or address or tell you where they can contact the subject. Remember as you’re supposedly handling someone’s personal affects for security, you should ask what their relationship is to your subject. Be polite. Also as nobody is familiar with BR lost property they would have no idea how the department works. Therefore a call back can be easily avoided. Tell them “that you presently have 3 calls on hold, and you need to sort it out now”].

    Remember if you need other info make light conversation on the subject that you’re interested in.

    Don’t forget that all you’re supposedly trying to do is to return lost property.

    So I would suggest that seeing as ‘blagging’ is not illegal if journalists can claim a public interest defence the only way this current furore is going to move on is if more evidence of the illegal practice of ‘hacking’ can be uncovered. And remember always be wary when BR Lost Property ring up with your celebrity lover’s lost belongings.


    Leave a reply