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Good, bad and ugly hacking

by Hugh Cortazzi

The trial of the editors and others involved in the hacking of private phones by representatives of the media has just begun in London. The trial, which involves eight journalists and associates, is likely to last some six months and to cost millions of pounds in fees to lawyers.

The trial stems from evidence given in the recent yearlong inquiry into media scandals, which was chaired by Lord Justice Leveson. All the accused except one were employees of the Murdoch media empire.

The accusations against those being tried include conspiracy to undertake illegal hacking of private phones, unlawful payments to officials for confidential information, and concealment and destruction of evidence.

All eight accused have pleaded not guilty to all charges, although three journalists associated with the accused have pleaded guilty to phone hacking.

The two main accused are Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, both of whom were editors at one time for the News of the World, a Sunday paper renowned for muckraking and scandal. Both were regarded as proteges of Rupert Murdoch, whose company owned the paper, and are reported to carried on an affair for more than six years.

Trials of others involved in phone hacking are likely to follow. In view of the huge media interest, the amount of evidence and the involvement of many eminent lawyers, the 12 jurors will have a daunting task trying to reach fair verdicts.

Whatever the outcome of these trials, it is evident that some journalists have taken part in illegal hacking of private telephones and that the press in Britain needs to take firm action to improve standards. The three main parties in Britain have agreed to set up a press complaints commission under Royal Charter backed by legislation.

The British press, fearing that political interference is down the road and that freedom of the press is in jeopardy, have threatened to boycott the commission established under Royal Charter.

Phone hacking is not just a British problem. Leaks of information by the renegade Edward Snowden about snooping by America’s National Security Agency have appeared in The Guardian and other newspapers. These leaks suggest that NSA has been monitoring the phone calls of large numbers of citizens in European countries especially in France, Germany and Spain. It is also alleged that the personal mobile phones of a number of world leaders, including that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have been hacked. These allegations have led to anger in Europe, and Merkel has protested personally to U.S. President Barack Obama, who was clearly embarrassed not least because he was apparently unaware of what NSA had apparently been up to.

NSA claims it was looking for possible leads to terrorist plots. It is absurd to suggest that Merkel could be involved in any way with terrorism.

So what was NSA looking for? Clues about German policy toward the United States or Russia? As Obama is reported to have said: “If I want to know what Chancellor Merkel thinks about something, I will ask her direct.”

No sane person would object to intelligence gathering that might prevent a terrorist incident, but such work needs to be backed by common sense. When the costs of intelligence agencies, like other government agencies, are under pressure, it is wasteful for cyber geeks to go on extensive, generalized fishing expeditions.

As anyone who has dealt with intelligence agencies knows, they contain many intelligent people as well as a few without common sense or a proper ethical perspective. It is also a fact that some intelligent politicians such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair become mesmerized by so-called secret sources and attach unreasonable reliance on any highly classified report.

One “justification” for the alleged actions of NSA is that the Chinese have been spying on every aspect of America and trying to get hold of technology without paying for it. Certainly we all need to be on guard against Chinese snooping, and it seems clear that Russian intelligence is working hard to emulate their Soviet predecessors.

British intelligence agencies have had a special relationship with their American opposite numbers. This stems from the cooperation that developed during World War II.

The British intelligence agency responsible for cyber intelligence, GCHQ (Government Communications Head Quarters), has provided valuable help to the Americans. It is not clear whether or to what extent GCHQ was involved in the hacking that has so upset some of our European allies.

There is increasing pressure in the U.S. and in Britain for better and increased political supervision of intelligence activities. The main need is for common sense to prevail and for intelligence agencies to concentrate on the real and significant threats to our security, especially from terrorism. It is also important that intelligence agencies act within the law and not presume that operating outside their homeland allows them to behave in ways deemed unlawful in their own country.

The close cooperation existing among Anglophone intelligence agencies and intelligence agencies in allied and friendly countries needs to be extended to include other allied countries. Trust between friends needs to be rebuilt.

We also need to review the extent to which our communications should be kept secret. Information that endangers the lives of intelligence agents or reveals defense resources and plans clearly must remain restricted to those who need to know.

Much other information, if leaked, would cause embarrassment and could damage national interests. But government ministers and officials go to unnecessary length to prevent leaks of papers that might undermine their credibility and integrity or reveal their incompetence.

Tokyo has the reputation of being a “leaky sieve.” The Japanese government is reported to be preparing to introduce legislation to tighten the rules governing official secrecy. In view of the historical misuse by the Japanese military of secrecy rules, the Japanese parliament and media will need to scrutinize very carefully any draft government bill to make sure that media freedom is maintained.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.