Governmment proposes jail for journalists who buy personal data

The Government is to begin consultation on bringing in jail terms for those convicted of trading in personal data.

The Government is proposing to amend the Data Protection Act to toughen
the current penalty of a fine for buying personal data to make a
possible prison sentence of up to two years. 

It follows calls for a change in the law from Information Commissioner
Richard Thomas, who in May said that hundreds of journalists were
buying secret data.

Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs Lord Falconer (pictured) said today: “Greater data-sharing within the public sector has the potential to be hugely beneficial to the public – as individuals and to society as a whole.

“It 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. That is why we are consulting on the possible amendment to the Data Protection Act.

“We want to make clear, however, that this does not mean that front-line public sector staff who, while sharing data for legitimate reasons, make an error of judgement in what are often complex cases, will be penalised as a result of this proposal.”

In May, Information Commissioner Thomas said: “The ultimate buyers of illegally obtained personal information include journalists, financial institutions and local authorities wishing to trace debtors, estranged spouses seeking details of their ex-partner's whereabouts or finances and criminals intent on fraud or witness or juror intimidation."

Thomas said that in one major case investigated by his office, records had been found of secret information being sold to 305 named journalists from a range of newspapers.

Thomas said: "At a time when senior members of the press were publicly congratulating themselves for having raised journalistic standards across the industry, many newspapers were continuing to subscribe to an undercover economy devoted to obtaining personal information forbidden to them by the law."

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