Who ever would have suspected the British tabloid media of abusing people's privacy and breaking the, admittedly weak, Data Protection Act, but not, of course, the UK's non-existent privacy statutes ?
Ian Dale has the story, and, rightly suspects that it will not be splashed as front page news by the mainstream newspapers, so it is the duty of the UK political blogosphere, from all political viewpoints, to comment, analyse and investigate.
If any bloggers or journalists or others do wish to "blow the whistle" and reveal more details of this scandal about "blaggers", then please read our hints and tips and advice about protecting confidential sources or yourselves.
Former Conservative Party Treasurer Lord Ashcroft, who single-handedly financed the Tory Party for while, has published some censored details from FOIA requests (.pdf), to the Information Commissioner's Office, about the ICO's own Data Protection Act investigation into a Hampshire based private detective / information broker.
His interest in this case stems from the alleged "dirty tricks" campaign he accused The Times newspaper of back in 1999, when the then Tory Chairman Michael Ancram, and his odious Deputy Chairman Tim Collins (now thankfully no longer an MP) were making unfounded accusations about the Labour Party "hacking" of Conservative Party bank account details.
We remain sceptical of such claims, despite what we know about the parlous state of IT security employed by the Conservatives at that time - contact us privately if you really want to know more.
The accounting records of this private investigation company have been seized, and they apparently show payments made by individual journalists and the newspapers they were working for, although, of course, some will have been working freelance for several organisations over a period of time.
The private detective agency (as yet unnamed, but we await information from whistleblowers, following the usual precautions) is accused of obtaining confidential information like telephone records, bank account details and medical records.
Nevertheless, the ICO data released to me shows that the 305 journalists, the identities of whom have yet to be revealed, commissioned no fewer than 13,343 separate lines of enquiry, as discovered by the ICO’s Motorman investigation. These transactions can be subdivided into three categories:-
- those which are positively known to have constituted a breach of the Data Protection Act, of which there were 5,025.
- those in addition which were probably a breach of the Data Protection Act, of which there were 6,330.
- those lines of enquiry which were questionable, but in relation to which there was insufficient information to form a definitive view, of which there were 1,988.
These revelations only cover the period from 2000 to 2003, between the coming into force of the amended Data Protection Act (which mostly changed the job title of the Data Protection Registrar to that of the Information Commissioner), and the police raid in 2003.
It is unclear why it took from March 2003 to May 2006 for the Information Commissioner to become involved.
It seems that the Information Commissioner's Office is due to publish some more details "in the public interest" today Thursday, but again, Ian Dale has a published a preview list of the busiest clients
1. Daily Mail - 952 incidents by 58 different journalists
2. Sunday People - 802 incidents by 50 different journalists
3. Daily Mirror - 681 incidents by 45 different journalists
4. Mail on Sunday - 266 incidents by 33 different journalists
5. News of the World - 182 different incidents by 19 different journalists
What puzzles us slightly is the number of different journalists involved for each newspaper. Does this mean that the cheques or other payments to the detective agency were mostly in the form of expenses claims by individual journalists rather than corporate accounts with the newspapers?
As Ian points out, this only means that the Daily Mail used this particular private investigator more frequently than their rivals, and that figures from other private investigators, if they were to be revealed, could produce a different ranking order.
Joshua Rozenberg, the Legal Editor of the Daily Telegraph, also reports on a more recent, smaller scale case, which has led to convictions and fines, but, not to imprisonment, as the weak Data Protection Act does not allow this. He also reveals that, in the Operation Motorman case, the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, has chosen not to prosecute the 305 journalists involved.
A case known as Operation Motorman identified 305 journalists who had obtained information from a private detective in Hampshire.
Even though thousands of offences had been committed, the four ringleaders ended up with nothing more than a conditional discharge because of the sentences they received in a connected but separate case. Mr Thomas was then told that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute any of the 305 journalists.
"But they know who they are," he tells me. "And we know who they are." Yesterday, he went a step closer to exposing them, naming the publications identified in the Operation Motorman case. Heading the list was the Daily Mail, with 952 transactions involving 58 individual journalists or clients acting on their behalf. Next was the Sunday People with 802 transactions, followed by the Daily Mirror with 681 individual cases and the Mail on Sunday with 266. Those papers with more than 100 transactions included the News of the World, the Sunday Mirror, Best magazine, the Evening Standard and the Observer.
The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph do not feature in the list at all. Neither do The Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times or the Independent titles.
N.B. Operation Motorman, which is also mentioned by the Lord Ashcroft FOIA article, should not be confused with the similarly named, historically significant British Army Operation Motorman, which re-occupied the "no-go" areas in Northern Ireland in 1972, which had sprung up in response to the then Labour Government's unworkable policy of "Internment" of terrorist sympathisers
i.e. detention without a proper trial, on suspicion and with the assumption of "guilt by association". This policy converted mere sympathisers into active trained terrorists.
We were reminded of Operation Motorman when NuLabour Home Secretary John Reid made his sinister Labour Party conference speech this year, re-iterating the "no no-go areas in Britain" soundbite he used on a convenient Muslim extremist heckler, to his "by invitation only" private meeting (with TV camera crews in attendance), supposedly re-assuring the local Musilm community in Waltham Forest in East London.
It is seems clear that the tabloid media are up to their necks in this murky business of snooping and privacy invasion, and, according to the Information Commissioner, this has not been mostly for real Public Interest, Investigative Journalism investigations to expose criminal activity or government scandals.
The Daily Telegraph article cites the Information Commissioner's example:
Mr Thomas gave the example of a painter and decorator whose car number had been illegally checked at DVLA. The man was astonished and quite disturbed by what had happened.
Eventually, he worked it out. He had been decorating the home of a national lottery winner.
Some of the other clients are alleged to be supposedly respectable law firms and Local Authorities.
Were these private detectives also paid for information by the Police or other Government intelligence agencies ?
Were they used by political parties to gather "dirt" on their opponents ?
Did they use corrupt contacts by former Policeman, or what computer hackers and phone phreakers have called "social engineering", which has hit the headlines in the USA over the Hewlett Packard affair as "pretexting" i.e.
tricking low level employees in banks or the phone company or the National Health Service, into revealing sensitive personal details, by various forms of lies and deception, bolstered by some real facts (e.g. mother's maiden name, date of birth etc.), knowledge of the usual procedures, and the use of convincing sounding names and job titles etc. to bolster the false impression of genuine authority for the enquiry ?
Whether these activities also included the "skip trashing" or "Benjy the binman" trawls through commercial and domestic rubbish, searching for unshredded bank account or credit card statements etc. is unclear.
Whether any computer based hacking techniques were used is also unclear.
Why should anyone trust the forthcoming National Identity Register or the NHS "data spine" centralised NHS Care Record medical records system not to be vulnerable to these well established techniques ?