SCL Media Group Meeting Report: Hacking

October 11, 2011

One of the biggest news stories of 2011 has been phone hacking by members of the media. Its aftermath may well see cracks in some of the cosier relationships between press and politics and in public views on permissible behaviour when searching for a story. What’s more Lord Justice Leveson’s Inquiry into media standards may lead to changes in the law.

Media and technology lawyers found themselves needing to know more: What exactly is hacking? In what circumstances can it constitute a criminal offence? What civil liabilities can arise? How is the Leveson Inquiry progressing?

SCL’s Hacking seminar drew a large number of interested SCL members and others to the offices of RPC on St Katharine’s Dock.  Jaron Lewis, an RPC Partner and Chair of the Media Group, explained that the seminar aimed to outline the law in this area, explain the underlying technology and provide an overview of the Leveson Inquiry and how it is progressing.  The event was subject to the Chatham House rule – only those attending (and perhaps the odd hacker) will have the benefit of all the words of wisdom that were imparted. This account of the meeting is a mere sketch.

The first speaker was Peter Surrey, the head of digital forensics at GPW. His guidance through the technical aspects of hacking was vital – without an understanding of the techniques and technology, any claim to understanding the law and regulations is illusory.  Peter has a rather low opinion of phone hacking – in the echelons of hacking it hardly rates at all – but explained how it can be done and went on to cover ‘blagging’ too. One of his mantras, ‘There will always be a market for information; There will always be mechanisms through which secrets are discovered’, is well worth bearing in mind for those who are prone to forget the lessons to be learned from this scandal, but is nonetheless a little depressing. Depression was short lived however as a quick tour of the threats to security in airports, hotels and even lawyers’ own homes probably led to its replacement by anxiety. His riff on the relationship between rabbits and info security may have lifted the gloom.

Antony White QC then took us through the legislation that might apply to hackers, both under the civil and criminal law.  He explained recent amendments to the Data Protection Act, some of which are not yet in force, and looked at the key provisions from RIPA. 

Keith Mathieson, RPC partner and principal author of the Privacy Law Handbook was the next speaker. His focus was on the Leveson Inquiry and he reminded the meeting of its origins and its twin focus: ‘a full investigation into wrongdoing in the press and the police’ and ‘a review of regulation of the press’. But, as he pointed out, such an Inquiry has no power to determine civil or criminal liability and can only make findings of fact and issue recommendations. Keith took the meeting through the projected stages of the Inquiry and gave important insights into the complex process that, it was hoped, would lead to a report in July 2012.

The event was the first to be organised by the SCL’s new Media Group. The Group will provide thought leadership on the interaction between computers and the media, including audio, audio-visual, magazines, newspapers, books, content aggregators, blogs, social media and other forms of UGC. As well as getting involved in Government policy consultations, the Group will share knowledge on the law affecting media companies, market developments and business issues affecting the media sector. If you are interested in joining the new Group, working on its Committee or being involved in some other way, contact Jaron Lewis at