Information commissioner Richard Thomas has called for jail sentences of up to two years for people caught illegally trading in personal data.
Thomas made the call as he presented a report to parliament using special powers under the Data Protection Act.
The report, What price privacy? is based on investigations carried out by the Information Commissioner’s Office and reveals evidence of a large scale market in personal information, including addresses, telephone records and bank account details.
It describes a “pervasive and widespread” industry, in which personal data is supplied by private investigators and tracing agents, often through several intermediaries, and is bought by financial institutions and local authorities wishing to trace debtors, fraudsters, estranged spouses and journalists.
The ICO has constructed a “tariff” of charges for data, based on its investigations, which revealed that one tracing agent charged up to £120,000 a month, while information on telephone accounts was sold for up to £750 a time.
The information was usually obtained by paying staff, impersonating target individuals or officials, the report says.
Thomas said, “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.”
He added that plugging data security gaps was “ever more urgent as the government rolls out its programme of joined-up public services and joined up computer systems”.