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The public interest

It's not new for journalists to behave badly. Go back to 1930s plays-turned-movies like The Front Page (1931) or Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and you'll find behavior (thankfully, fictional) as bad as this week's Guardian story that the News of the World paid out £1 million to settle legal cases that would have revealed that its staff journalists were in the habit of hiring private investigators to hack into people's phone records and voice mailboxes.

The story's roots go back to 2006, when the paper's Royal editor, Clive Goodman, was jailed for illegally intercepting phone calls. The paper's then editor, Andy Coulson, resigned and the Press Complaints Commission concluded the paper's executives did not know what Goodman was doing. Five months later, Coulson became the chief of communications for the Tory party.

There are so many cultural failures here that you almost don't know where to start counting. The first and most obvious is the failure of a newsroom to obey the dictates of common sense, decency, and the law. That particular failure is the one garnering the most criticism, and yet it seems to me the least surprising, especially for one of Britain's most notorious tabloids. Journalists have competed for stories big enough to sell papers since the newspaper business was founded; the biggest rewards generally go to the ones who expose the stories their subjects least wanted exposed. It's pretty sad if any newspaper's journalists think the public interest argument is as strong for listening to Gwyneth Paltrow's voice mail as it was to exposing MPs' expenses, but that leads to the second failure: celebrity culture.

This one is more general: none of this would happen if people didn't flock to buy stories about intimate celebrity details. And newspapers are desperate for sales.

The third failure is specific to politicians: under the rubric of "giving people a second chance" Tory leader David Cameron continues to defend Coulson, who continues to claim he didn't know what was going on. Either Coulson did know, in which case he was condoning it, or he didn't, in which case he had only the shakiest grasp of his newsroom. The latter is the same kind of failure that at other papers and magazines has bred journalistic fraud: surely any editor now ought to be paying attention to sourcing. Either way, Coulson does not come off well and neither does Cameron. It would be more tolerable if Cameron would simply say outright that he doesn't care whether Coulson is honorable or not because he's effective at the job Cameron is paying him for.

The fourth failure is of course the police, the Press Complaints Commission, and the Information Commissioner, all of whom seem to have given up rather easily in 2007.

The final failure is also general: the problem that more and more intimate information about each of us is held in databases whose owners may have incentives (legal, regulatory, commercial) for keeping them secured but which are of necessity accessible by minions whose risks and rewards are different. The weakest link in security is always the human factor, and the problem of insiders who can be bribed or conned into giving up confidential information they shouldn't is as old as the hills, whether it's a telephone company employee, a hotel chambermaid, or a former Royal nanny. Seemingly we have learned little or nothing since Kevin Mitnick pioneered the term "social engineering" some 20 years ago or since Squidgygate, when various Royals' private phone conversations were published. At least some ire should be directed at the phone companies involved, whose staff apparently find it easy to refuse to help legitimate account holders by citing the Data Protection Act but difficult to resist illegitimate blandishments.

This problem is exacerbated by what University College of London security researcher Angela Sasse calls "security fatigue". Gaining access to targets' voice mail was probably easier than you think if you figure that many people never change the default PIN on their phones. Either your private investigator turned phone hacker tries the default PIN or, as Sophos senior fellow Graham Cluley suggests, convinces the phone company to reset the PIN to the default. Yes, it's stupid not to change the default password on your phone. But with so many passwords and PINs to manage and only so much tolerance for dealing with security, it's an easy oversight. Sasse's paper (PDF) fleshing out this idea proposes that companies should think in terms of a "compliance budget" for employees. But this will be difficult to apply to consumers, since no one company we interact with will know the size of the compliance burden each of us is carrying.

Get the Press Complaints Commission to do its job properly by all means. And stop defending the guy who was in charge of the newsroom while all this snooping was going on. Change a culture that thinks that "the public interest" somehow expands to include illegal snooping just because someone is famous.

But bear in mind that, as Privacy International has warned all along, this kind of thing is going to become endemic as Britain's surveillance state continues to develop. The more our personal information is concentrated into large targets guarded by low-paid staff, the more openings there will be for those trying to perpetrate identity fraud or blackmail, snoop on commercial competitors, sell stories about celebrities and politicians, and pry into the lives of political activists.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, follow on Twitter, or email netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.


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