Letter from Richard Thomas: End pernicious trade in personal data

The following is a letter by the information commissioner, Richard Thomas. It is reproduced from the Independent newspaper on 2 April 2008.

The following is a letter by the information commissioner, Richard Thomas. It is reproduced from the Independent newspaper on 2 April 2008.

Sir: Donald Trelford's piece "If this Bill is passed, it could mean the end of investigative journalism" (Media, 31 March), is wrong on several counts.

In 2006 my office exposed an illegal, widespread and pernicious trade in personal information. Law firms, financial institutions and the media have been engaging private investigators to obtain people's health, financial and other personal details to order. This has been a specific criminal offence for many years, but has not been deterred by availability of unlimited fines. The government has recognised that the custodial sentence included in its Criminal Justice & Immigration Bill is needed to deter those who steal data.

This does not threaten responsible investigatory journalism in any way. Donald Trelford is wrong to suggest that a simple phone call puts a journalist at risk of imprisonment. The offence is only committed where the information is obtained knowingly or recklessly without the consent of the organisation holding it. Usually the information is "blagged" through deceptive impersonation or by a corrupt payment. With a clear public-interest defence, genuine investigatory journalism is further protected - but not the scavenging for tittle-tattle uncovered by my office.

Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy. But - unless public-interest considerations apply - freedom of speech does not justify stealing information any more than it would permit stealing a briefcase or a laptop.

Government and other organisations hold ever-increasing volumes of data about all of us. There was widespread anger when child benefit and other data losses came to light, but at least that was accidental. This offence targets deliberate security breaches. This is the Government's first legislative opportunity to demonstrate its seriousness in safeguarding information. It would be extraordinary for its welcome strong line to be abandoned or opposed at this late stage.

Richard Thomas

Information Commissioner,Wilmslow, Cheshire

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