UK phone-hacking scandal—is it finally over?

To me, the story of phone hacking by the UK newspapers is one of the biggest technology stories of the past 10 years. That's also because it was one of the biggest crime stories, and the biggest political stories and biggest police corruption stories and it has spanned all of the past ten years. Yet for all the noise, it all started so quietly.

It came back to life last week with a conviction for Andy Coulson and an embarrassing apology from the British Prime Minister. A couple of long articles that are worth reading are available from The Guardian and The Telegraph.

I took quite an interest in the scandal at the time, although it took much longer to break as a major story than you might expect. After a single "rogue reporter" was convicted in 2007, Nick Davies at The Guardian kept pushing the story. Minor breakthroughs came with News International paying settlements to a few celebrities in 2010, which appeared to be trying to hush the story up. 

It was only when it was revealed in 2011 that the phone of a murdered school girl, Milly Dowler, had also been hacked that the story took on a life of its own. It seems that it's acceptable to hack the phones of famous people but not dead school girls.

A wide range of groups were implicated in the scandal to some degree. The Police were accused of being in bed with Rupert Murdoch by dragging their feet with the enquiry and not treating the scandal as a serious series of crimes. The Prime Minister was indirectly involved by hiring Andy Coulson, who was just found guilty of offences last week. The press were obviously involved, with one newspaper being shut down, many reporter being arrested, questioned and charged. 

Overall it is a very interesting and complex story—although the technology angle is very dull.

By "phone hacking", there were generally one of two things going on. One was simple social engineering, or "blagging" as the U.K. press would generally refer to it. Calling up a companies or other agency and act out a cover story to get information that you weren't entitled to. 

The other type of hacking was generally listening to voicemails without permission. It was possible to dial the voice mail number and retrieve the message for a different phone number. The voice mail system would ask for a PIN number but in the early 2000's, the default PIN was either 0000 or something based on the phone number. No real skill required, just a little bit of knowledge. 

In addition to the phone hacking there was also the issue of Police corruption. I'm not sure that it has had as much attention as the hacking but it seems to be just as important. The Police were allegedly tipping the press off with information about arrests. This information wasn't given for free but officers were being paid for it. Senior members of the Metropolitan Police were regularly meeting with senior employees of News International and other news organisations.

I don't believe that any Police officers have been charged with crimes over this scandal.

The trial of Andy Coulson, Rebekah Brooks and others concluded a week ago, with a guilty verdict for the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson and the other six defendants being found not guilty. Considering the time elapsed since the original offences, the difficulty in proving any criminal activity and the budget for the defence laywers, it is a disappointing end to the trial but not that surprising. 

It is unclear where the press and police go from here. I assume that this story will just be forgotten about by the public as it took the hacking of Milly Dowler for it to become a big issue and was dismissed as muck-raking by The Guardian for several years before then. Now it will just fade away. 

There are several problems with this. The close relationship between the press and Police is likely to continue. There will always be money looking for the next story and the rules around the Police releasing information about arrests are very limited.

Also, as with many countries, it is up to the Police to conduct criminal investigations and if they do not conduct them to their full ability, crimes will go unpunished. Whether that occurred in this case because of corruption, considering the offences to be too minor bother with or even a lack of willingness to create an enemy of the press isn't really important. Powerful people were allowed to get away with crimes and the system doesn't seem to have changed significantly such that this won't happen again.

It will be interesting to see what develops with this story over the next few months and years although I think it has probably peaked and will now just fade away.