The discovery of Glenn Mulcaire’s hoard of notebooks is among the more memorable details of the phone hacking scandal. The information they contained revealed the extent of News Group Newspaper’s illegal activities, and the company’s interest in figures from across public life. But the value of the scrutiny of Mulcaire and NGN’s relationship which the affair has prompted goes beyond its effect on the media to the wider exposure of another unregulated industry which frequently profits from personal information, that of private investigators.
The Home Affairs Select Committee is having its second meeting of a series today to hear evidence on the activities of private investigators as part of an inquiry set up late last year. Solicitor Charlotte Harris, who became a victim of investigators as a result of her involvement in the phone hacking litigation, is to give evidence on her experience of being followed, highlighting the connection between the wider phenomenon and its most public manifestation so far. Also appearing today are representatives of three large companies that dominate the market in private investigation, Kroll, Control Risks, and the Risk Advisory Group.
The link between the current inquiry and hacking was also referred to by Committee Chairman Keith Vaz MP when it was announced. He stated then that its wider purpose is
“to discover the full extent of the activities of private investigators and to decide whether the public, as well as the reputable side of the industry, should be protected by a regime of statutory regulation”
The interest in regulation was shared by Lord Justice Leveson, who heard evidence from a series of representatives of private investigation industry bodies on Thursday February 2 (see Inforrm’s report on week nine’s events):
“nothing that I have heard in the last three months persuades me other than the view that this is an industry that does require regulation, and I don’t believe, simply on the basis of what I’ve heard today, that it could be a self-regulatory model, given the fractured nature of the associations that are involved in it.”
The first meeting of the Committee heard evidence from Information Commissioner Christopher Graham, whose office focuses on the trade in personal information with its reports What Price Privacy? and What Price Privacy Now? (see yesterday’s Inforrm post on Hacked Off’s campaign for the disclosure of the Operation Motorman files to which they also refer). He said that his office received relatively few complaints about the activities of private investigators, although this is hardly surprising given the secretive nature of their work.
Mr Graham highlighted the power available to the Home Secretary under section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which gives the Secretary of State an, as yet unused, ability to increase the penalty for offences under s55 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (unlawfully obtaining personal data). Graham asserted the value of a “stronger and more deterrent penalty”, saying that he wants
“to have access to the full range of penalties, so that when a health service worker or bank worker goes rogue they are not simply facing a modest fine in the magistrates court because they are of limited means. They could face a community punishment of tagging, and the more serious players would know they were facing the prospect of jail. I have to say with great regret that no progress on this has been made at all and it’s all rather tied up with the Leveson Inquiry.”
Mr Graham went on to say that he hoped for a licensing and regulation regime, with breaches of s55 leading to disqualification from the business.
It’s widely accepted that the tipping point in phone hacking’s entry into the public consciousness was the revelations about Milly Dowler’s phone; the involvement of her and her family demonstrated its impact on the wider public as well as a narrow class of celebrities and politicians. But the scale of invasions of privacy and access to personal information by or on behalf of the media is insignificant when compared to the use of such practices by investigators working for a whole range of industries and individuals, from finance companies to local authorities. Those at the top end of the private investigation industry, including the companies whose representatives appear today, conduct legitimate work for household-name businesses and institutions, while the services of those at the bottom have been used by fraudsters and other criminals.
The introduction of a Europe-wide ‘right to be forgotten’, as part of new Data Protection rules, is a result of the sense that there is a pressing need to regulate what happens to the personal data we willingly surrender to businesses and others in an increasingly information-based society. The hacking scandal has shown that the activities of those who, illicitly or otherwise, trade in and profit from such data without our knowledge or consent should, if anything, be even more of an urgent concern for legislators and the public.
Gervase de Wilde is a former journalist at the Daily Telegraph and a student barrister.