A new warning by the Information Commissioner could affect journalists if they take their contact books with them when they leave their jobs.
The ICO has issued a reminder that it is a criminal offence under the Data Protection Act for employees to take personal information when they leave.
This could affect journalists’ contact books – both paper, and electronic – in some circumstances.
The ICO’s warning came after a paralegal was prosecuted for taking sensitive personal information when leaving for a rival firm. The employee was fined £300 plus costs.
A journalist’s contact book is not covered by the DPA’s journalistic exemption. But they would probably be safe from prosecution if their employer agreed they could take it when they left.
However, it could be different if the employer asserted their ownership of the contacts book. A case in 2007 ruled they the employed does own the contacts list, if it is stored on their computer system.
ICO senior press officer David Murphy explained: ‘It is possible to argue most media organisations would normally expect or accept that journalists would take their contacts with them. So there is a level of assumed consent from the data controller.
‘We’d assess this case-by-case should we received any complaints. We’d only investigate this aspect further if there was clear evidence of an exception to this accepted media practice.’
If a journalist was prosecuted for taking their contacts, they could use the DPA's public interest defence. The ICO recognises there is inherent public interest in a free press and freedom of expression. This would support journalists using contacts to pursue stories, whoever they worked for.
My advice to journalists is to find out if their employer asserts ownerships of their contacts books.
If they do, or if they are not sure, their should create your own copy, using their own software or address book.
Cleland Thom is author of Internet law for journalists