How a hack on Prince Philip's Prestel account led to UK computer law

Thatcher, Buckingham Palace & BT left red-faced by historic techno romp

Brief encounter

‪Alistair Kelman‬, Gold's barrister throughout the case and Schifreen's representative by the time the case went to the House of Lords in 1987, told El Reg he was teaching police officers in Hendon on how to investigate computer crime at around the time he was approached by Gold at a conference, who "nabbed" him as his barrister.

He first became interested in the area after writing a report for the British Computer Society on the admissibility of computer evidence in court, which led on to writing a book called The Computer in Court. ‪Kelman‬, who read minerals engineering at Birmingham University before re-qualifying as a barrister, told us about the circumstances that led up to the hack, which exposed lax security practices at BT.

"Schifreen found semi-dead systems, which he dialled into using a Spectrum," ‪Kelman‬ explained. "The welcome screen displayed sysman and syspass. These were the same as the live system, so Schifreen was able to get in as root."

Schifreen changed the master page to prove he had root before Gold and Schifreen went to the media with the story, which subsequently featured on BBC News and ITV's News at Ten. Then-prime minister Maggie Thatcher "went ballistic" when she saw the report, according to ‪Kelman‬.

Thatcher handbagged BT's then chief exec over the bad publicity in the run-up to BT's flotation, prompting the telco to call in the police. It was this that lead to the arrest and prosecution of Gold and Schifreen. The duo had been open about what they had done and the case had been written up in the press, so they weren't difficult to identify as suspects.

"They were identified by BT, who had engineers and traced all the calls," ‪Austen‬ explained. "The evidence of what they did was complete, and at interview both Steve and Rob admitted their actions. It was a ‘not guilty’ plea at Crown Court, but that was on the basis that they had not broken the law."

Police had tapped the phones of Gold and Schifreen prior to arresting them at home and seizing computer equipment. But the law at the time (years before the RIPA Act) did not permit them to look at messages.

"At the original trial I tried to get this evidence thrown out as inadmissible," ‪Kelman‬ explained. This submission wasn't unsuccessful and a guilty verdict was returned at the original trial.

This verdict was, however, overturned on appeal. Austen explained: "They were convicted at Crown Court (with a jury) but the case was dismissed at the Court of Appeal – we appealed to the House of Lords and it ended as case dismissed on a point of law (that the forgery was only for a millionth of a second and had no degree of permanence)."

Lord Justice Lane in the appeal court ruled that the Forgery Act was inappropriately applied to treat unauthorised logins to the Prestel system as a "false instrument that told a lie about itself".

"It wasn't an appropriate way to use legislation that had been taken well outside its field," ‪Kelman‬ told The Register. "The Forgery Act could have been applied to the production of counterfeit ATM cards, as I was telling police at the time, and this is perhaps where the prosecution got the idea to use that law."

Next page: Forging ahead

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