In today's digital age, smartphones have become a necessary appendage for many Americans. Smartphones are far more than phones. They hold our email, our lists of friends and family, our financial and banking information, and countless other bits of data about our location, interests, schedules, and habits.
Given all of this information, it is not surprising that many people are increasingly concerned about the possibility of hacking. To what extent is mobile data secure?
Major Phone-Hacking Scandals
One of the reasons that many folks are worried about the security of their data is that digital hacking is in the news. In addition to stories of WikiLeaks and government whistleblowers leaking confidential information, we've heard an ongoing series of major news stories about journalists being hacked.
In July 2011, for instance, the news world was rocked by reports that journalists for a British newspaper, the News of the World, hacked into the voicemail accounts of thousands of people. The victims ranged from a murdered school girl to sports celebrities to members of the Royal Family. Why? To get news scoops, apparently.
Not long after the scandal broke, News Corporation (News Corp.), the owner of "News of the World," stopped publication of the UK newspaper.
While the investigation continued in Britain, the U.S. FBI started an investigation into claims that News Corp. employees--or people hired by journalists, like private investigators--hacked into phone conversations and voicemails of 9/11 survivors, victims, and their families. Several members of the U.S. Congress called for a federal investigation of News Corp., as well.
More recently, President Donald Trump made headlines when he accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping his business at Trump Tower during the 2016 presidential election. (President Obama denied the allegation, which remains unsubstantiated.) But even for the rich and powerful, wiretapping and phone hacking is a deep concern.
Are You at Risk of Phone Hacking?
If you are not a movie star, sports hero, politician, or the victim of a high-profile crime or national disaster, you don't have anything to worry about, right? Who could possibly want to hack into your voicemail messages or listen to your telephone conversations?
You might be surprised. Think about what you say over the phone or store in voicemails, in case:
- identity thieves and other criminals are listening in, hoping to get your credit card, bank account, and Social Security numbers.
- An ex-spouse, or soon-to-be ex, is looking for information to use as leverage against you in a divorce or child custody battle.
- Coworkers or business competitors are looking to obtain your trade secrets or steal your idea for a new product or service.
Once you think about it, you'll realize there may be a sizable list of people or entities who would want access to the information transmitted via your phone.
How Hacks and Taps Work
Without getting too technical, knowing some basics about how hacks and taps happen can help you prevent such snooping from happening to you.
Hacking Into Phones
This is primarily a problem for mobile or cell phones. Like email hacking, someone can obtain information stored on your cell phone, such as your voicemail records, without your permission. This can be done by:
- accessing your account by using your password, which you may have shared with the hacker
- pretexting or spoofing, where the hacker calls your wireless provider, pretends to be you, and then changes your password or accesses your voicemail and other account features, or
- installing software or spyware, malware, or a virus on your phone.
Tapping Phones and Listening Into Calls
If you still have a traditional phone with telephone wires in your home or office (called a landline), a phone tap is still the same thing you remember from TV and movies. It is a mechanism you can see and touch, connected directly to your telephone line and splitting the line into two.
Mobile phones may also be tapped. The most common way is to install software or spyware on your phone. Someone near you, perhaps many yards away, could use software on a computer or a smartphone to listen to your cell phone conversations.
VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) technology poses special problems for those worried about tapping. Anyone near your home or office may use software on a computer or a smartphone, or even the type of scanner used to monitor police and fire communications, to listen to your phone calls.
Stop the Snoops
No matter what type of phone you use, there are steps you can take to prevent hacks and taps:
- Create a password to use on your phone. This is easy on most smartphones, and will generally stop someone who steals your device from easily accessing your data.
- Change your phone and email passwords frequently, at least once every two months.
- Do not share your phone or voicemail password with anyone, under any circumstances.
- Change the factory preset password for voicemail (often 1234), and use a strong password that is not easy to guess (i.e., do not simply use your birthday).
- Check with your wireless provider for information on when your voicemail account and other features were accessed.
- Look at your monthly bill to see how often your voicemail number was called. Make sure the data usage makes sense for your activities; if it unusually high, that might be a red flag.
- Have a professional examine your phone or telephone lines for security breaches.
- Be careful when allowing someone to "sync" their phone with your phone. Is the person trustworthy?
- Use encryption software to make VoIP calls secure.
- Choose apps for a mobile phone wisely. Hackers can add a virus or malware when downloading the app, giving the hackers access to your phone. Check the reviews of apps before you download them, and generally download your apps from the AppStore, rather than the open Web.
Contact your local police department, telephone service provider, and if applicable, your bank once you have reason to believe your phone has been tapped or hacked. Having said that, do not become paranoid. The odds are slim that someone is hacking or tapping your phone. But by taking a few safety precautions, you can help to ensure that your privacy is protected.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can I install spyware or software on my child's cell phone? What about my spouse's?
- Can my work email and/or cell phone be accessed by my employer?
- Are wireless providers legally responsible for voicemail and other cell phone security breaches?
- I think my phone has been tapped, but the police won't take a report or investigate my complaint. What can I do now?