Government will jail journalists who buy secrets

The Government is to introduce jail sentences of up to two years for those who illegally trade in or misuse individuals’ personal information, it was announced today.

The move, announced by Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer, follows a series of incidents in which investigators and others have been found to be dealing in and using personal information, and a consultation on the current punishments.

It also follows calls by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas for a two-year maximum jail term for those involved in illegally obtaining and using information.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said: “The Government has been increasingly concerned about an apparent growth in the trade in personal data.

“Current penalties of a fine in the Data Protection Act 1998 have not provided a sufficiently strong deterrent. These concerns were highlighted in special reports to Parliament by the Information Commissioner, What Price Privacy, and What Price Privacy Now?”

Announcing the changes – to be introduced by amending the Data Protection Act – Lord Falconer said: “We are determined to do all we can to stamp out this intrusive and illegal trade.

“People have a right to have their privacy protected from those who would deliberately misuse it, and I believe the introduction of custodial penalties will be an effective deterrent to those who seek to procure or wilfully abuse personal data.

“Greater data-sharing within the public sector has the potential to be hugely beneficial to the public and is wholly compatible with proper respect for individuals’ privacy.

“One of the essential ways of maintaining that compatibility is to ensure the security and integrity of personal data once it has been shared.”

Section 55 of the Data protection Act makes it an offence to sell or offer to sell personal data which is knowingly or recklessly obtained without the consent of the data controller.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs spokeswoman said the Government would amend section 60 of the Act to increase the penalties available.

Section 60 currently provides for a fine up to the maximum of £5,000 on summary conviction, and an unlimited fine for a conviction on indictment.

Under the new proposals, a summary conviction would carry a maximum penalty of six months in jail – which, in England and Wales, will be increased to a year when section 154 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 comes into force – while a conviction on indictment will carry a maximum of two years in prison.

“The Government will introduce this amendment when Parliamentary time allows,” the spokeswoman said.

The announcement follows cases in which people working for private investigation agencies have been fined for “blagging” – impersonating individuals to persuade organisations such as banks, telephone companies and even their employers to give out information about them.

In December last year the Information Commissioner repeated his call for two-year jail sentences for people who illegally deal in personal information as he unveiled a “league table” of national publications which had had dealings with an agency dealing in information.

But the table, released after a request under the Freedom of Information Act, gave no indication of the information the agency was supplying, or why it was getting it – or whether obtaining the information and passing it on was unlawful in any particular case.

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