Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Adventures in journalism p II

After the 'triumph' of filming the inside of my bag for an hour (see last blog entry), I got one more chance at undercover reporting. This time was better as I didn't have to film anything, there was a cameraman and everything.

It was in the late nineties and there was a lot of fuss about people hacking into mobile phone calls. I'd done it myself - well, not quite true - my mate had done it when we were both pissed, and there was nothing on the telly. We'd howl at the genuine Cockerneee folks screaming and shouting at each other on the airwaves of East London.

But the networks were changing to digital, something they claimed was "100% crackproof". One in particular emphasized their security aspects, having a retired major bloke (complete with shouty posh voice, shiny bald heed and little 'tache, I later found out) as their security supremo.

We were piloting a show explaining technology to an adult audience. The show started very grandly with a virtual presenter, incredibly heavy graphics and lots of aspirations to be trendy yet accessible, informative but funny. It ended up on air with our usual games presenter outside in the streets doing leaden links, hand-held camerawork and the thin one off Birds of a Feather explaining how to work a mouse. Sigh.

Anyway, my idea was to hack into digital mobiles. I did some digging amongst the, er, more dubious people I knew, and found a hacker blokey. Another stereotype - heavy metal T-shirt, lank long hair, odour of stale pizza. But he knew his stuff - he had hacked his electricity meter so had never paid a bill, had copies of the latest 'uncrackable' games and showed me how to listen into digital calls using a scanner and a piece of software on a laptop. The fact it was the Head of Finance (a very large woman so fat that if you threw a beachball her way it would orbit her like a moon) talking saucily with her equally rotund bf slightly put us off but there you go.

So off we went to the only service station on the M25 to film the feature. We filmed people on their phones, and filmed Hackerboy listening in. It did seem to work, even if all the calls were from some poor salesman telling his office he was halfway to Slough or something.

Then we went to the phone company, just for a chat about their fab security I'd said, Hackerboy sitting in the corner with a clipboard as if he was a researcher. I was the interviewer, but said to Major Security-Breach (or whatever his double-barrelled name was) that I'd be cut out. He was to put the question in the answer, as we're all trained to do in MakingSoundBiteTV courses.

I asked lots of nice easy "So why is digital better than analogue" type questions, and then Major Soon-Exploding made a bit of a boo-boo. He said no-one could break his systems. I asked how he knew. He said that he'd employ anyone who cracked the systems to work on improving them, quite a liberal answer as hacking was (and still is) illegal.

I said that he'd better give the researcher guy a job then as we have footage of him cracking their security. This started to play on our monitor.

Major Losing-Control watched for a minute or two, then glared at me, picked up his very shiny small phone (as the camera zoomed in) and dialled 999.


I said that we informed those we'd listened in on what had happened, that no personal information or compromising details had been retained, and we'd come straight to the company to inform them their claims were incorrect. That they were lying to their customers. Surely exposing such injustice was more important than making a point.

Major Snarling-Crackpot leant forward and almost spat into my face "GET OUT OF HERE NOW", and then stomped off. We packed in silence and left.

Awaiting me the next day were legal summonses, tens of messages from various legal and phone company bods and one from Hackerboy saying he thought he was followed home so he stayed at a mate's place that night and slipped out at 2am.

The boss was delighted, toasting me with champagne and saying we'd got a massive result. She even loved the final feature, with the back of my head featuring prominently as I courageously stated our case, the slight tremble in my voice sounding more indignant than terrified, even though the latter was the truth.

And the BBC loved it, fab, the pilot got a series commissioned. Yay all round.

Well, er, no. The feature was never broadcast as the phone company actually did improve their security and make the calls crack-proof (well, until PCs got faster and more powerful anyway). Hackerboy seemed to have 'borrowed' things from where we filmed, and from our office. And the back of my head and dodgy accent was deemed too "untelevisual".

Hey ho.

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