How to hack cell phones better than News of the World

Its sleaze is unmatched, but NOTW's cell-phone hack techniques are disappointingly dull

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Hopefully this woman's cell phone company isn't letting tabloid PIs bully their way into her voice mail.

Source: REUTERS/Olivia Harris

No one endorses hacking someone else's voice mail or cell phone accounts. For an audience of geeks curious to know how it's done, though, the waterfall of coverage of the News of the World scandals skipped the most important part: how did it hack all those cell phones and how could I do that if I wanted to can I ensure none of my users are hacked that way.

[Also see: Should 'News of the World' phone hackers do jail time? and Coming soon: A new way to hack into your smartphone]

For the most part, News of the World investigators allegedly paid to access the phones didn't clone the target phones and reproduce identical spoofs, as is often portrayed in spy thrillers and almost-accurate tradecraft voice-overs on Burn Notice.

They just got the victims' PIN numbers so they could listen to v-mails stored on server-based voice mail systems owned by cell phone carriers.

NOTW and its boring hacks

News of the World did it in particularly dull ways, though.

Mainly, according to the NYT, they used social engineering with a characteristically colorful British slang name: "blagging."

It meant they could call government agencies, cell phone carriers and other potential sources and con them into thinking they were the celebrity being targeted so they would either be given the password or could create a new one.

The more technical approach was to have two investigators on a multiline connection call the victim's phone and, while the first investigator kept the line engaged, the other called the voice-mail line, and connected that call to the already-open line to the victim's phone so when the voice-mail system asked for the phone's unique ID, the victim's phone would give it.

That's way too boring a solution to accept though. It just makes the whole hacking scandal worse because it was accomplished in such stupid ways.

On this side of the pond our geeks are more ambitious.

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