The News of the World's Clive Goodman yesterday pleaded guilty to plotting to intercept phone messages involving the royal family and currently awaits sentencing. Another man, Glenn Mulcaire, also pleaded guilty to the same charge.
"More than 300 journalists are implicated in this illegal activity," said a spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). "We have given them a clear warning that we will not hesitate to take action if they are suspected in future of committing offences."
Goodman admitted to tapping into the answering machines of mobile phones that belonged to staff of the Prince of Wales and his son Prince William. It is thought to be a common practice among journalists who either tap into phones themselves or pay others, such as private detectives, for information obtained in this way.
The Information Commissioner wants existing offenders to face the toughest penalties, and wants the government to mandate even stiffer fines and jail terms.
"Earlier this year we drew attention to other illegal methods some journalists use to obtain personal information in our report, 'What Price Privacy?'," said the ICO spokesman. "Information obtained improperly, very often by means of deception, can cause significant harm and distress to individuals."
"The Information Commissioner has called for prison sentences of up to two years for people who take part in this illegal trade in buying and selling people's personal information. The current penalties under the Data Protection Act are not a sufficient deterrent to stop this lucrative and widespread illegal trade. In response the Department for Constitutional Affairs launched a consultation on stiffer penalties."
The Old Bailey heard yesterday how Glenn Mulcaire, the former footballer who is now a private detective and was Goodman's co-accused, accessed voicemail messages left by publicist Max Clifford, footballer Sol Campbell's agent, the chairman of the Professional Footballers' Association, MP Simon Hughes and model Elle Macpherson.
The ICO said that it would publish a follow up report to its initial inquiry into the sale of personal information before Christmas detailing what progress had been made on the issue. It also said that Goodman is being charged under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act rather than the Data Protection Act, which governs the ICO.