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News of the World journalists deleted voicemails on missing girl’s phone

Well then, I’m rather appalled to read that, according to The Guardian, News of the World journalists screwed around with the voicemail belonging to a missing teenager who disappeared back in March 2002.

Here’s what The Guardian says:

The messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly’s disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive. Police feared evidence may have been destroyed.

Why were they doing this? Well it’s simple — the story of the missing girl — Milly Dowler — was big, big news. There’s a lot of pressure for scoops, particularly in the tabloid media — and voicemails, well, they’re a really good place to look. Voicemail hacking or (“phone hacking”) as it’s been referred to across the media, is ultra simple. All you need is the user’s phone number. You phone the voicemail access number, type in the user’s phone number and then four-zeros and you’re in.

Most people, you see, don’t bother changing their voicemail pin number. Or worse, haven’t bothered setting one in the first place — so the default, 0000, works.

[Side note: Where have the mobile operators been? Why isn’t everyone assigned a random voicemail PIN when they sign-up for an account?]

So for years, a mainstay source of information for tabloid journalists has been the voicemail accounts of the great and the good.

It’s one thing hacking — sorry, accessing (it’s hardly ‘hacking’ is it?) — the voicemail of some D-list celebrity to find out who-slept-with-who, but goodness me, accessing the voicemail of a missing teenage girl? That’s bad in the first place. What’s absolutely horrifying is that Milly’s voicemail messages were reportedly deleted! To free up more space!

Goodness me.

Have a read of this paragraph:

According to one source, this had a devastating effect: when her friends and family called again and discovered that her voicemail had been cleared, they concluded that this must have been done by Milly herself and, therefore, that she must still be alive. But she was not. The interference created false hope and extra agony for those who were misled by it.

<snip>

The Dowler family then granted an exclusive interview to the News of the World in which they talked about their hope, quite unaware that it had been falsely kindled by the newspaper’s own intervention. Sally Dowler told the paper: “If Milly walked through the door, I don’t think we’d be able to speak. We’d just weep tears of joy and give her a great big hug.”

Dear me.

The mobile industry has most definitely failed subscribers.

You do have to wonder what the hell the people in charge of their subscribers’ voicemail systems were doing during these years — and even now. Of course, accessing voicemail systems is illegal. But that didn’t stop them being abused. Why didn’t operators just implement a random pin for everyone, by default?

Do read the full story on this issue at The Guardian.

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

2 replies on “News of the World journalists deleted voicemails on missing girl’s phone”

Taking aside the fact the NOTW’s actions were disgusting, I wondered exactly the same thing about the default PIN – and then thought “well, they must have changed it NOW, surely…?”  I’ve been one of the lazy ones who’ve never set a PIN on my VF number, so tried accessing voicemail from another phone.

Happy to report that on Vodafone, at least, it won’t let you in without a PIN and will send a new random PIN to your handset.  I’d hope all the other mobile operators are now doing something similar – it would be downright negligent if not.

As you say though, disappointing that the operators didn’t spot this massive security hole from the beginning…

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