Info chief says journalists who buy secret data should be jailed

Dominic Ponsford

Journalists could face up to two years
in prison for buying and selling personal information – under new
powers called for by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas.

He is presenting a report to Parliament which “reflects his
deep concern that confidential information can too easily be obtained
improperly from public and private organisations, causing significant
harm and distress to individuals.”

Thomas wants to target those
illegally buying and selling personal information such as addresses,
ex-directory telephone numbers, call records, criminal records and bank
account details.

In a statement his office said: “Information is usually
obtained by making payments to staff or impersonating the target
individual or another official. Some victims are in the public eye;
others are entirely private citizens.”

It added: “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. The report has constructed the
tariff of charges – up to £750 for telephone account enquires –
revealed by one investigation. In another case, an agent was invoicing
up to £120,000 a month for tracing activities."

The
Information Commission claims there is "a large scale market in the
trading of personal information" and that the penalties are too low to
have a deterrant effect. It points out that one major case only
resulted in conditional discharges.

Thomas said: “People care
about their privacy and have a right to expect that their personal
details should remain secure from those with no right to see them.
Disclosure of even apparently innocuous personal information can be
highly damaging in some situations – such as the address of a woman
fleeing domestic violence.

“Organisations can also be victims of
this pernicious trade. Advances in technology enable public and private
bodies to hold vast amounts of information about us, but they need to
be fully aware of the risks of unauthorised disclosure and take strong
precautions. Otherwise the benefits will disappear if companies and
government lose the trust and confidence of customers, staff and
citizens. Plugging the gaps becomes ever more urgent as the government
rolls out its programme of joined-up public services and joined up
computer systems.”

Thomas added: “Low penalties devalue this serious data
protection offence in the public mind and mask the seriousness of the
crime, even within the judicial system. They do little to deter those
who seek to buy or supply private information that should remain
private.

"We are proposing the introduction of a prison sentence
of up to two years for people convicted by the crown courts and up to
six months for those found guilty by magistrates. The aim is not to
send more people to prison but to discourage all who might be tempted
to engage in this trade – whether as suppliers or buyers. Those who
need or want personal information must use legal methods.”

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