Milly Dowler vanished in 2002. It set off a huge sensation in the UK, similar to the Natalee Holloway case in the United States. Now, reports have surfaced that News of the World hacked into her voicemail.
[T]he newspaper not only intercepted messages left at the cellphone number of the girl, Milly Dowler, 13, by her increasingly frantic family after her disappearance, but also deleted some of those messages when her voice mailbox became full — thus making room for new ones and listening to those in turn. This confused investigators and gave false hope to Milly's relatives, who believed it showed she was still alive and deleting the messages herself.
The News had already been busted for hacking into the voicemail boxes of the UK's elite. Royals and celebrities and political leaders. But this time the subject was a missing 13-year-old girl. And its actions actively hampered the investigation.
I think we can all agree this was reprehensible. But it won't be the last time. The age of the hacker journalist is upon us. We've heard so much about programmer journalists in the last few years, who use programming skills to crunch and present data, that we forget about the reverse side of an era of reporters who know their way around a computer: hacking.
The journalist has long been a gatekeeper who passes along information, which is sometimes illegally procured (see: the Wikileaks cables, or the Pentagon Papers). But we're entering an era when many journalists have the necessary skills to actively purloin that information themselves. Careers will be made and undone by hacker journalism.
Sometimes the information that comes out of these will be for the public good. You'll see corporate and government malfeasance exposed. But it's certainly also going to be abused. We're going to be reading celebrities' emails and viewing top-secret products under development. (And of course, the reverse is true as well. HP famously hacked into reporters' data to try and figure out where internal leaks were coming from.)
Yet when laws are broken, we'll rarely know it. It has taken almost a decade for the Milly Dowler scandal to emerge from the time her voicemail was hacked. Hacking is easily covered up. It's easy to place blame on a source. After all, if a reporter is willing to break the law, why not go one step further and hide behind a non-existant anonymous source? (See, for example, Michael Gallagher, who did just that with Chiquita's voicemails.)
In short, this is the new normal. A new tool in the reporter's arsenal, albeit one we'll only hear about when someone gets busted.
You can keep up with Mat Honan, the author of this post, on Twitter or Facebook.