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

This week marks the 30th anniversary of arrests in the infamous Prestel hack case. It led to arrests, breached the Royal Family's security and helped give birth to the UK's first computer crime law. What began as a hack against the Prestel Viewdata system – which opened up access to Prince Philip's mailbox – later led to the …

  1. Sir Barry

    No Change Then

    "exasperated attempts to shock BT into action after BT showed no interest in bolstering the security of its system"

    30 years later and BT have the same attitude with their Home Hub:

    "BT has investigated similar issues and concluded that there is no fault with the way BT’s Consumer Home Hubs operate to allow VoIP calls over the internet."

    Ho hum...

  2. TitterYeNot

    This could explain a few gaffes.

    Meanwhile, upstairs at Buck House...

    Liz - Honestly Philip, how could you have said such a thing? One just didn't know where to look one was that embarrassed!

    Philip - I'm sorry honeybuns, but the message said it was from our Royal PR advisor, and it most definitely said "Ask an ethnic minority nurse whether many of her relatives from nig-nog land are working for the NHS..."

  3. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

    New laws?

    "It is a precedent in English criminal law that new laws will not be considered unless existing law is shown to be inadequate,"

    Oh yes? Could someone explain that to the current crop of ministers (Con, Lab and Lib) who seem to write new laws in response to every headline in the Daily Fail, regardless of whether there are already perfectly effective laws on the Statute Book (just ones which the Peelers can't be arsed to enforce.)

    1. paulc

      Re: New laws?

      you can blame the mass increase in the use of PCSOs for that...

      Real Policemen are thin on the ground... and the new laws are being written as ticketable offences that PCSOs can issues tickets for without having to go to the trouble of amassing evidence and taking it to court... they just write up the ticket and it's up to the recipient to have to go to the trouble of taking time off work and turning up in court to challenge it or just accepting it and paying the 'tax'...

      Dangerous driving is difficult to take through court and get a guilty verdict on, but a fixed penalty ticket for using a mobile phone is easy... it's binary, either you had the phone in your hand or you didn't... before hand they had to go to the trouble of having to prove that your phone use was actually dangerous.

      1. YetAnotherLocksmith

        Re: New laws?

        And hence this new and dangerous wheeze of adding hundreds of pounds in "costs" should you dare to try and disagree with the officer and have your day in court.

        Pay the £60, or go to court and pay "from £150" in extra costs when found guilty.

        Grayling really is a c*nt.

  4. This post has been deleted by a moderator

    1. Richard Parkin

      Re: I'm a republican…

      Being a republican is not the same as being a non-conformist though in your case it may be the same as being a foul-mouthed idiot. I always felt that the point about Philip's message and Charles's messages being broken into was that if they could do it to them they could do it to us. As proved to be the case.

    2. Toltec

      Re: I'm a republican…

      They are useful as a marketing and PR tool, and can do and say things politicians cannot.

      While they have a life of priviledge they are also perhaps the least free to chose their own life path.

      They may be an anachronism, but so is religion and I know which one is more important to get rid of first.

      1. phil dude

        Re: I'm a republican…

        The simple idea of monarchy is a stain on humanity. No specific implementation can change that.

        It really doesn't need much more analysis than that.


        1. This post has been deleted by its author

    3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: I'm a republican…

      "happened to fall out of a certain cunt"

      Oh, well played. How to lose any small amount of respect you may had and not influence people

      1. phil dude
        Thumb Up

        Re: I'm a republican…

        mod-up, sir. Being rude about anything tends to give power to thing that is supposed to be the target of derision.

        The only reason we need any words for this subject, other than the history books, is because the dysfunction still persists in our society.


        1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

          Re: I'm a republican…

          I love republicans not only is there always at least one foul mouthed yob who defeats their own argument through sheer bile, there's always another who wants to eat the rich out of envy. . Then there's the delusional majority that who have bizarrely convinced themselves that binning the royals is anywhere near the top of the list for fixing our current system?

          Plus let's look at the evidence shall we?

          Republics. FRANCE USA.

          Monarchies Norway, Belgium and Spain.

          Which ones are most dangerous to their citizens and the rest of us? Give even more power to our politicians? I DON'T THINK SO.

          I rest my case m'lud.

          1. RobZee

            Re: I'm a republican…

            And whenever the rich and unfairly privileged wish to deflect any sort of criticism, they make out the motive behind that criticism is envy and jealousy. Unless of course it's one of their own, and then they're a hypocrite and traitor to their ilk.

            The one thing our aristocracy and upper middle classes are terrified of is a level playing field, hence private schools, gentlemen's clubs and the old boy network.

          2. Dan 55 Silver badge

            Re: I'm a republican…

            Well I don't know about Norway or Belgium but Spain, both royalty and politicians along with the church, mastered the fine art of shitting on its citizens copiously and regularly a long time ago and still carries on doing so.

          3. phil dude

            Re: I'm a republican…

            I love the toadies that come with monarchies. They feel that by defending the inbred (by definition) occupants of castle(s) built on stolen land, that it makes them somehow part of the show. Like the security guard at the front desk of a corporation building, must be SO important.(#Duke)

            Seriously, if you can argue that somebody should be treated differently to everyone else due to their "declared familial genetics", I think there are some recent historical tragedies you should re-read which had that as their "mission statement".

            Start now and work backwards...1945 was a particularly good year to become enlightened.

            You will get no argument from me that the current political stage is deeply corrupt, but it needs more input not less. Perhaps we need to decouple politics from from being a donor funded career and have it has an attained occupation?

            You only have to look at the airbrushed antics of the current "Royal Yoof" to realise that letting any family (e.g. Corleone) to run things is a bad idea.

            We are all human first. Everything else comes second.


          4. Jim 59

            Re: I'm a republican…

            Agree with Gordon 10. Look around the world. Constitutional monarchies are the most stable places, even better than republics.

            Personally I like having the monarchy. The royal family are an important link with our history and part of British identity. They are also a bulwark against extremism and totalitarianism. Anyone wishing to break Britain, or turn it into a dictatorship (like the armchair Marxists above) would have to break the monarchy first.

            They can be justifiably critisized of course, but that doesn't really change the above.

          5. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: I'm a republican…

            Have a look at this map, there's not many monarchies around in reality.


            Much of the world tends to function perfectly well without them.

      2. Tom 13

        Re: Oh, well played.

        Missed that bit. Probably because I decided she was one before I read that far. And I'm not even British.

    4. x 7

      Re: I'm a republican…

      I bet you want Eric Salmond for President

    5. Hans 1

      Re: I'm a republican…

      >Call it being disrespectful if you want, but respect has to be earned, and just coz someone happened to fall out of a certain cunt is no reason to respect 'em!

      When one thinks that you are actually talking about a monarch, hilarious!

      I would have added "[...] respect'em or give them more privileges than others".

      Upper class, royals, nobility are the fruit of consanguinity or, in other words, a bunch of idiots. They have managed to set up this con act that has been going on for centuries ... that Santa, god or whatever you call the bearded man who lives in the skies, gave them this "privilege" to be more equal than others.

      Père Noël et mon droit.

      Honi soit qui bien y pense.

    6. Blitterbug
      Thumb Up

      Re: just coz someone happened to fall out of a certain cunt...


  5. Dan 55 Silver badge

    Prestel, eh? Communitel... Viewdata... MicroGnome... jumpers for goalposts... Marvellous

    1. Timbo

      Re: Prestel, eh? Communitel... Viewdata... MicroGnome... jumpers for goalposts... Marvellous

      Nice link - seeing the MicroGnome, and info about Micronet 800 brought it all back to me: I had over time, 2 Prestel accounts, and loved chatting to TA's (Travel Agents) about various trips abroad that they had had, mainly as freebies from the holiday firms for the holidays that they sold.

      And as Bulletin Board Systems sprung up, I was always looking for "Prestel-type" BBS's where I could use the Spectrum 48k + VTX5000 modem on 1200/75 7-E-1.

      After that, I upgraded to a PC and got a modem that supported 2400 half or full duplex, 8-N-1 and found some software, such as ProComm to view many new BBS's. There was even some shareware software (the names escapes me right now) that allowed access to Prestel-type BBS' most software was stuff that was available in USA and was made available to UK users - does anyone remember the Night Owl series of CDROM's, full of shareware software?

      Ah, such happy thanks for the link :)

  6. John Savard Silver badge

    It Explains Much

    The suspects in this case should never have been charged, as they weren't engaged in any criminal activity - as soon as they discovered there actually was a problem, they ceased from their unauthorized access, and notified the authorities.

    This explains the case of the programmer prosecuted for double-checking whether the charitable site he donated to was legitimate that I read about in the Register some years back.

    Having broad and severe laws against computer misuse is entirely reasonable. Enforcing them without a shred of common sense and discretion, however, is not.

  7. Dan Paul

    The only new law the world needs is....

    to make being a career politician (instead of a public servant) a criminal offense.

  8. Christian Berger

    The German version (Bildschirmtext, BTX) had a rather nifty logical flaw

    In the early sets the user credentials were stored on a PROM inside the modem. This was done to prevent fraud and the use of non-licensed modems.

    As soon as the modem would detect a carrier, it would send its login credentials...

    However that modem could not detect rings. After all it was just meant to do outgoing calls. So what some people did was to get a modem for the answering side, call a BTX terminal at a trade show and wait till someone wants to dial into BTX. It'll then pick up the line, try to dial (which will be ignored), get your carrier, and send you its credentials.

  9. martinusher Silver badge

    It was dail-up in more senses than the link....

    The original description of the system that I read used a telephone dial to interact with the system rather than a touch-tone keypad.

    Reading this article suggests that these two were unintentional collateral damage from the push to sell off BT -- BT had to be seen to be unresponsive, outdated and incapable of investing in the future in order to devalue it in the public's mind and so help make the case for privatization. (The fact that a private BT is just the same old / same old but private is irrelevant -- the sale's been made, the asset's gone, just another piece of the family silver that wasn't needed any more.)

    1. Daniel B.

      Re: It was dail-up in more senses than the link....

      Yes, that's how it reads given that Maggie Thatcher was involved in it. Another black mark on her history of oppression...

    2. Terry Barnes

      Re: It was dail-up in more senses than the link....

      "The original description of the system that I read used a telephone dial to interact with the system rather than a touch-tone keypad."

      That's not possible. The breaks in the line that resulted would cause a modem to drop carrier. There would also be no facility for the * or # keys and there's no facility in a telephone exchange for those loop interruptions at the local exchange to be translated to something meaningful at the distant end - just noisy clicks over the carrier that serve no purpose. Loop disconnect signalling ceases to be useful once the distant line is answered.

      Prestel didn't use MF4 signalling either - it wasn't possible to drive it from a phone. The MF4 signalling is inband and would have obscured the data carrier, causing a disconnect.

      1. Christian Berger

        Re: It was dail-up in more senses than the link....

        Well you'd obviously modulate the dial pulses into beeps which wouldn't interfere with the downlink. The great advantage would be that you wouldn't need a microcomputer on the client side... which back in the 1970s was a very good point.

  10. Mr Dogshit

    Are they *still* dining out on that hoary old story?

    Are they *still* dining out on that hoary old story?

  11. x 7

    this was about Philip's mail? So why the picture of Charles........

    come on guys, editorial standards can't have dropped that low at El Reg, surely

    1. x 7

      Ah the picture has changed.......glad to see someone reads the comments

      1. Hans 1

        Next time, instead of harvesting "upvotes", you might as well use the " Tips and corrections" link - that is what it's there for!

  12. PrivateCitizen


    Can any one add or enhance my understanding about this:

    "which also made making, supplying or obtaining articles for use in computer misuse offences in themselves."

    Does that mean things like Hackin9 and nessus / nmap articles or John the ripper are criminal offences now?

  13. Simon Brady

    The Hacker's Handbook

    The Hacker's Handbook was one of my most prized possessions as a spotty teenager. Reading the text now (, I have to smile at gems like this:

    "Hacking is an activity like few others: it is semi-legal, seldom encouraged, and in its full extent so vast that no individual or group, short of an organisation like GCHQ or NSA, could hope to grasp a fraction of the possibilities."

    They sure got that right...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The Hacker's Handbook

      The Hacker's Handbook is still a must-read for anyone today who really wants to understand computer security - admittedly, many of the technologies within are outdated, but when you consider this was 30+ years ago, taken in that historical context and thinking it through to present day you can easily see how Hacking* is here to stay, and hackers* are getting more and proficient at it.

      *I suppose changing the terms "hackers" and "hacking" from their previous meanings (relating to modification or creation of "Heath-Robinson" electronic circuits typically) to encompass the term "computer hackers" (as they used to be known) is one of the first examples of "virtualisation"..

  14. x 7

    something I'm confused memory is that it was a BT Telecom Gold account that was hacked, not Prestel.

    Bad memory? Or were there two different hacks?

    1. Blitterbug

      Re: my memory is that it was a BT Telecom Gold account that was hacked, not Prestel

      I think Gold was accessed via the Prestel viewdata system, could be wrong tho.

  15. DMcDonnell

    Wide medals

    I had to laugh when I saw the picture with the medals running of the edge of his chest.

    Perhaps some day he'll have to turn sideways to get thru a doorway.

  16. irrelevant

    RIP Steve Gold.

    To follow up on a couple of comments; prestel used V23 modems - it was originally designed to be used from a modified *television*, not a telephone. (It made sense in the 70s - most people had a TV, but they were still a bit too expensive to have a second..) Only later did they relent and allow Set Top Boxes/dedicated terminals/computer access!

    Prestel sets had the same feature as BTX - you could set the customer ID in memory, and it would be sent out when an ENQ code was received. Whatever system it was connected to... Many viewdata-format BBS owners found prestel IDs in their logs ...

    The Prince Philip prestel account was, I am told, set up for a demonstration and never actually used thereafter... I was promised screen grab from the "hack", but sadly never got them.. The System Manager ID used was, I understand 2222222222. If you consider that the public demo account was 4444444444 and Micronet's demo account 8888888888 ... It's a wonder they didn't get dropped in it beforehand.

    Telecom Gold was a separate text-based service that offered messaging with other national services around the word and was thus great for business communications. There was a gateway from Prestel quite late on, but it was cumbersome.

    And thanks for the links to - that's my site :) I really must so some updates...

    1. x 7

      So I take it that in reality Prestel was close to the USA TWX "dial-up telex" hybrid system?

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