Privacy SOS

Murdoch’s phone hacking reveals extensive surveillance of high profile people, but what about the rest of us?

People often say that the government wouldn't care to spy on most of us because we are boring and irrelevant. We live in a society dominated by the cult of fame, and so problems in our culture always get loads of attention when they affect famous people. Infidelity is highlighted when politicians are unfaithful. Child sexual abuse hits the headlines when famous football coaches and the Catholic church are implicated. But we know that these problems lurk among all sectors of our society, harming all of us in some way. 

The phone hacking scandal at the Murdoch empire is no different. This week, a number of victims of News Corporation and UK police's privacy-invasions settled with the Murdoch's group. Among the highest dollar amounts was given to Jude Law, who  reportedly settled for $200,000; in total, News Corp. paid about one million pounds to silence these 36 particular victims. Per the settlement, Law and the 35 others waived their rights to pursue criminal charges against any of the bad actors, including the UK government, which appears to have been complicit in the illegal surveillance. And this is only the beginning of what is sure to be a wave of similar lawsuits, as police have estimated there are at least 6,000 potential victims of the surveillance campaign.

But eleven of the hacking victims will not settle, and are taking Murdoch's empire to court, pressing criminal charges. Criminal proceedings will surely unearth yet more grisly details of the extensive spying operation.

Negotiations during the settlement process uncovered alarming revelations, further illuminating the breadth of the surveillance campaign against the high-profile actors. The findings are stunning, but shouldn't shock anyone who pays close attention to surveillance in the digital age.

Jude Law received one of the larger settlements because he claimed that not only had News Corp. hacked his phone, but that the corporation had paid people to physically track him. Law issued a statement reading in part:

It is clear that I, along with many others, was kept under constant surveillance for a number of years…No aspect of my private life was safe from intrusion by News Group newspapers, including the lives of my children.
Other reports indicate that News Corp. also gained access to targets' email accounts, all courtesy of the dirty police officers who were on the dole. 
The mainstream media is covering the settlements, no doubt, but in most cases they are not asking the right questions about the scandal. Everyone agrees that what News of the World did was illegal and horrid, but no one is asking about why the police had access to that data in the first place. Mainstream media reports should use this scandal as an opportunity to ask why, via entirely lawful but wholly improper and anti-democratic surveillance, the government has nearly unrestrained access to our personal lives.
Why focus our criticisms on News of the World, a private corporation uncontrolled by the general public, when our own governments are tracking us and surveiling us in a manner far more extensive than any 'journalism' outfit could ever dream?
Among the invasive practices that Jude Law says invaded his privacy are:
  • phone hacking;
  • physical tracking and following; and
  • email hacking.

All of these activities are authorized for government use against the public under the Patriot Act and FBI investigations regulations. In fact, the FBI does not have to show any probable cause or reasonable suspicion to believe you are engaged in criminal activity in order to physically track you. And by using secretive measures like National Security Letters and state administrative subpoenas, the government can get access to your phone and internet records without ever showing evidence to a judge. At a higher level, we suspect that the NSA stores a copy of every single email sent or received in the United States and tracks billions of phone calls.

So while the focus on the phone-hacking scandal helpfully shows us how our mobile phones can serve to harm us, no one is asking why or how the dirty UK detectives had ready access to the email accounts and phone numbers they handed over to News of the World. That's the question we urgently need to ask. 

Many lawmakers, most police, and all surveillance purveyors will tell us that these are only a few bad apples, that our most intimate details are protected from the prying eyes of government and police analysts unless we are suspected of having broken the law. But as a recent report showed in the UK, the problem of police misuse of our intimate data is widespread. 

If you had the power to summon the most intimate details about anyone in the country, what would you do? We can't rely on the goodwill of individual officers or even the internal auditing mechanisms of government agencies when it comes to information about the most private aspects of our lives. The police and the government should not be able to access this data without firm evidence that we are breaking the law. Unfortunately, we do not live under such rules. Until the day we do, none among us are safe from the prying eyes of the surveillance state, famous actor or not.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.