"Phone interception" is back in the attention span of the mainstream news media, thanks to an official complaint from Clarence House i.e. from Prince Charles' staff.
The BBC reports that three men, including the News of the World's Royal correspondent, have all been arrested this morning under Section 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
Despite the reporting on both the BBC and on Sky News (part of the same group who own the News of the World tabloid), this is not a serious crime, according to the current law:
(7) A person who is guilty of an offence under subsection (1) or (2) shall be liable- (a) on conviction on indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to a fine, or to both;
(b) on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum.
According to Sky News, the complaints came back last December 2005, when 3 members of staff from complained about breaches of security of the Clarence House telephone system, "over a significant period of time", something which obviously has possible security implications for the safety of the Royal Family.
Sky News are now reporting that mobile phones are thought to be involved, and that other possible breaches of telephone privacy "at the homes of other public figures" are being investigated.
"An MP may have had their phone intercepted as well."
If true, this is far more serious than just a small scandal involving tape recordings or bugs or voice mail systems, physically located just within, say, Clarence House.
There are obvious comparisons to be made with the ongoing Vofafone mobile phone interception scandal in Greece.
The mention that a Member of Parliament may also have had his or her mobile phone intercepted means that the "Wilson Doctrine", must also be discussed.
We are awaiting the publication of the annual report by the outgoing Interception of Communications Commissioner, Rt Hon Sir Swinton Thomas (replaced from April 2006 by Rt Hon Sir Paul Kennedy), especially regard to his concerns about the "Wilson Doctrine" and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, raised, perhaps not coincidentally, back in December last year.
This "Harold Wilson Doctrine" (do not be confused by search engine queries which pull up references to US President Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy after World War 1) is the promise not to intercept the phones of Members of Parliament, given to Parliament in 1968 by the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The policy has been re-affirmed by every Prime Minister since. There are many unaswered questions about this policy, since both communications technology, and the number of elected Parliaments and Assemblies has increased since then - are these all covered by the "Wilson Doctrine" or not ?
Many of the experts on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act will be gathering next Monday 14th August, at University College , London, for the Scrambling for Safety 8 conference.
It is not just a matter of the privacy and security of the telecommunications of major Public Figures, which needs to be protected. All of us have this fundamental human right, which must be constantly protected not just from Big Brother / Nanny state petty officials, but also from private sector snoopers as well.
UPDATE - the Wednesday morning newspapers have a few more details, which prompt a few questions:
See the comments below, for different aspects and unofficial rumours and media reports, by unamed sources. Are these Royal sources or Police sources or Government spin doctors ?
Questions raised by these reports:
- Are the the two other, as yet unamed people arrested, also journalists, or are they currrent or former staff working in a position of trust within a Mobile Phone Network ?
- Which Mobile Phone Network(s) is/are involved ?
- Is the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Rt Hon Sir Paul Kennedy going to investigate ? Or will he claim, that since interception by a UK Police or Intelligence Agency does not appear to be involved, he does not have the power, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to investigate ? Will this be left to other Commissioners ?
- Is Ofcom, the mobile phone (and other) telecomms industry regulator going to investigate the management of the Mobile Phone Network involved, and review their operating licence accordingly, if there are found to be management or supervision failures ?
- Were Mobile Phone Network core systems compromised through illegal database access ?
- Was "sophisticated" over the air interception equipment used, as is supposedly being used against the Mobile Phones of British troops in Iraq ?
- The initial reports seem to be playing down the chances of actual real time voice call interceptions. Is this true or is this spin ?
- Were SMS text messages copied or read whilst in the store and forward system in transit ?
- Were network Voice Mailbox messages copied and listened to, without alerting the legitimate users i.e. was the "New messages" flag evaded ?
- Were such Voicemail messages restricted to old, already listened to meassages, which had not been deleted, but which simply had been accessed via the default Password or PIN ? Was there an attemt to actually dictionary attack or guess such a Password or PIN ?
- Were mobile camera phone Multimedia Message Service (MMS) photo or video clip, either of, or taken by, the Royal Family, also being accessed by the News of the World ?
- What about the Location Based Services data i.e. the near real time physical locations of these mobile phones, derivded from the Mobile Phone transmission mast locations ? Was the physical location of Prince Charles or his sons, and therby potentially their physical security, put at risk, by tracking their mobile phones or those of their Clarence House staff ?
- If the vague reports that a Member of Parliament, even Cabinet Minsisters may also be victims of thisalleged snooping, will a Parliamentary Committee investigate, and also review the "Wilson Doctrine" ?
- Will any of tomorrow's mainstream media even bother to ask any of the questions above, or will they just recycle the Squidgygate or Camillagate stories, which involved analogue not digital mobile phones ?