Hacking is 'tip of the iceberg' in data black market


  • Calls to regulate private investigators
  • Sever the links between police forces and private investigators, say MPS
  • Vaz: 'Rogue private investigators are the brokers in a black market in information'

Phone-hacking is the tip of the iceberg of a substantial black market in personal information, according to MPs.

Rogue private investigators are using tracking and recording devices easily available online to cash in on people's private lives and escape with paltry fines, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee said.

A robust licensing and registration system for private investigators should be set up as soon as possible and the Government must act to sever the links between private investigators and the police, the MPs said.

"Personal data is easier than ever to access and a private profile of a person can be built from a desktop," their report into private investigators said.

"The ease of access has also opened the information market to new and unscrupulous suppliers, who may not be registered with the Information Commissioner and are unlikely to understand the rules under which they ought to operate.

"Phone-hacking appears to be the tip of the iceberg of a substantial black market in personal information."

Keith Vaz, the committee's chairman, added: "We have found that rogue private investigators are the brokers in a black market in information.

"They illegally snoop on our data, cash in on our private lives and only get away with a paltry fine.

"The public must be assured that those acting as 'private investigators' are subject to stringent checks, act under a code of conduct, and will face tough penalties if they step out of line."

The committee also called for the Government to sever the links between police forces and private investigators, with both parties having to formally record any contact.

There should also be a one-year cooling-off period between retirement from the police force and working in private investigation, the committee said.

Vaz added: "It is time this industry was regulated, so that the honest majority can get on with their work. We expect the Government to act urgently."

The MPs said they heard "troubling allegations" that investigators were maintaining close links with officers in order to "garner 'premium' information that commands the highest prices".

"These links appear to go beyond one-off contacts and therefore to constitute an unacknowledged, but deep-rooted intertwining of a private and unregulated industry with our police forces," they said.

The committee called for the police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), to take direct control over investigations in cases alleging police corruption.

Home Secretary Theresa May should also strengthen the penalties available for offences relating to the unlawful obtaining, disclosure and selling of personal data, the MPs said.

"The current fine – typically around £100 – is derisory," the committee said.

"It is simply not an effective deterrent."

A Home Office spokesman said: "We will carefully consider the committee's report.

"Given the relevance of this issue to the matters being considered by the Leveson Inquiry, we will await its findings to ensure they can be taken into account in the development of a suitably effective regulatory regime.

"Private investigators remain subject to the law on intercepting communications like everyone else."

Emma Carr, deputy director of the campaign group Big Brother Watch, said: "It is absolutely right that people selling surveillance and investigating services are properly regulated and are held to account.

"For any regulation to work there must be a proper deterrent.

"Until jail sentences can be handed out to those who deliberately obtain sensitive information that they are not entitled to, the public cannot be sure that their privacy is adequately protected."

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