One important aspect the phone hacking saga is concerns the unlawful trade in private information.  In May 2006 the Information Commissioner published the report “What price privacy?” revealed “evidence of systematic breaches in personal privacy that amount to an unlawful trade in confidential personal information“.  This identified 3,522 occasions when 305 journalists requested information that the commission believed was likely to have been obtained illegally. The Information Commissioner followed this up with an October 2006 by report, “What price privacy now?” dealing with the progress made since the first report.  Not much progress appears to have been made since.

The sale by police officers and others of private information to journalists seems to be a key link in the information obtaining strategy of “News of the World” phone hackers. The “Operation Weeting” officers investigating phone hacking have recently been provided with the Information Commissioner’s files on “Operation Motorman” – the 2006 inquiry into the use of private investigators by newspapers, which documented the practices of Stephen Whittamore and associates.  In addition, it has recently been reported that police are investigating whether officers had unlawfully procured mobile phone-tracking data for News of the World reporters.

But the trade in private information continues.  The Mediapal@LSE blog draws attention to a recent report by “Big Brother Watch” into police database abuse – based on FOIA request.  The report reveals that between 2007 and 2010:

  • 243 Police officers and staff received criminal convictions for breaching the Data Protection Act (DPA).
  • 98 Police officers and staff had their employment terminated for breaching the DPA.
  • 904 Police officers and staff were subjected to internal disciplinary procedures for breaching the DPA.

Commenting on the research findings Daniel Hamilton, Director of Big Brother Watch said:

“The allegations surrounding Andy Coulson are just the tip of the iceberg.  …  Our investigation shows that not only have Police employees been found to have run background records checks on friends and possible partners, but some have been convicted for passing sensitive information to criminal gangs and drug dealers. This is at best hugely intrusive and, at worse, downright dangerous”.