July 16th, 2011 at 15:31 UTC by Ross Anderson
Britain’s phone hacking scandal touches many issues of interest to security engineers. Murdoch’s gumshoes listened to celebs’ voicemail messages using default PINs. They used false-pretext phone calls – blagging – to get banking and medical records.
We’ve known for years that private eyes blag vast amounts of information (2001 book, from page 167; 2006 ICO Report). Centralisation and the ‘Cloud’ are making things worse. Twenty years ago, your bank records were available only in your branch; now any teller at any branch can look them up. The dozen people who work at your doctor’s surgery used to be able to keep a secret, but the 840,000 staff with a logon to our national health databases?
Attempts to fix the problem using the criminal justice system have failed. When blagging was made illegal in 1995, the street price of medical records actually fell from £200 to £150! Parliament increased the penalty from fines to jail in 2006 but media pressure scared ministers off implementing this law.
Our Database State report argued that the wholesale centralisation of medical and other records was unsafe and illegal; and the NHS Population Demographics Service database appears to be the main one used to find celebs’ ex-directory numbers. Celebs can opt out, but most of them are unaware of PDS abuse, so they don’t. Second, you can become a celeb instantly if you are a victim of crime, war or terror. Third, even if you do opt out, the gumshoes can just bribe policemen, who have access to just about everything.
In future, security engineers must pay much more attention to compartmentation (even the Pentagon is now starting to get it), and we must be much more wary about the risk that law-enforcement access to information will be abused.