'X' is named. Alleged computer hacker at the centre of News of the World scandal

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Malware, Privacy

News of the WorldFor the first time, the identity of a man at the centre of allegations that computers were hacked on behalf of the disgraced News of the World newspaper has been named.

The Guardian reports that security consultant Philip Campbell Smith is alleged to have used a Trojan horse to hack into a computer belonging to Ian Hurst, a former British army intelligence officer who handled IRA informers in Northern Ireland.

For legal reasons, Smith was previously referred to simply as "X" in Hurst's recent evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards:

Part of a statement by Ian Hurst

It is claimed that Smith, a former member of the British Army's Force Research Unit (FRU), was contracted by a firm called Southern Investigations to spy on Hurst's computer on behalf of the News of the World, who wished to discover the whereabouts of IRA informants.

A BBC radio documentary broadcast late last year included claims from a former police officer that Southern Investigations commissioned computer hackers in their hunger for information to sell to newspapers.

The documentary claimed that some of the hackers had learnt the tricks of the trade while working for army intelligence.

Secret footage broadcast by a separate BBC television investigation in March 2011, showed Hurst confronting the (then unnamed) man who he believed broke into his PC:

"It weren't that hard. I sent you an email that you opened, and that's it ... I sent it from a bogus address ... Now it's gone. It shouldn't even remain on the hard drive ... I think I programmed it to stay on for three months."

Secret filming on Panorama

According to the hacker's filmed confession, faxed copies of the stolen information were sent to Alex Marunchak, a senior editor at the News of the World.

Marunchak has denied any wrongdoing, saying he had never instructed any third party to gather private information through illegal means. In addition, Jonathan Rees, the owner of Southern Investigations, denies ever selling or providing information obtained through illegal methods.

According to The Guardian, Smith is believed to be under investigation by "Operation Kalmyk", an offshoot of the "Operation Tuleta" computer hacking inquiry by the Metropolitan Police.

Other figures who are also said to have had their computers hacked on behalf of newspapers include Peter Hain MP, who at the time was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and Sir Hugh Orde, the then Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

It's important that everyone remembers that installing a virus or Trojan horse onto someone else's computer without their authorisation is against the law - and can lead to a lengthy jail sentence.

Just because something can be done, doesn't mean that it should be done.

Further reading:

Hacker image courtesy of Shutterstock

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About the author

Graham Cluley runs his own award-winning computer security blog, and is a veteran of the anti-virus industry having worked for a number of security companies since the early 1990s. Now an independent security analyst, he regularly makes media appearances and gives computer security presentations. Send Graham an email, subscribe to his updates on Facebook, follow him on Twitter and App.net, and circle him on Google Plus for regular updates.