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Information Commissioner names and shames newspapers

The Information Commissioner will today name and shame the newspapers he says are breaking the law in their pursuit of stories. Richard Thomas has published a report to Parliament on information theft which contains a league table of alleged offenders.14 Dec 2006

Six months ago Thomas signalled his intent to get tough on those who trade in illegally obtained personal information.

His league table alleges that the Daily Mail has used a raided investigations agency more than any other paper. As well as tabloid papers, broadsheets and magazines were represented on the list. The list should not be taken as definitive, since it only represents the usage ratios relating to one agency, but it does show how widespread the purchase of information is. 

"People care about their personal privacy and have a right to expect that their personal details are and should remain confidential. Who they are, where they live, who their friends and family are, how they run their lives: these are all private matters," said Thomas in the introduction to the new report. "Individuals may choose to divulge such information to others, but information about them held confidentially by others should not be available to anyone prepared to pay the right price.

The report, What Price Privacy Now?, is the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) update to his original report, What Price Privacy?, published in May. In that report he outlined the market for information and said he wanted sentences to increase and wanted individuals to face jail sentences of up to two years for buying or selling illegally obtained information.

"Progress has been significant and encouraging. In particular I welcome the Government’s consultation on increased sentences," he said. "Overwhelmingly the responses indicate support for the proposals. Many organisations have taken steps of their own to raise awareness and tighten security as well as more generally condemning the illegal trade."

Thomas's naming of newspapers is sure to be a controversial step in the battle against information theft. Newspapers have already accused him of seeking to stifle free speech in recommending stiff sentences for people such as the News of the World's Clive Goodman, who recently pleaded guilty to plotting to intercept personal information.

"Explicitly targeting the press in his report is a high risk strategy," said Dr Chris Pounder, a specialist in privacy law at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW. "Many journalists still think the end justifies the means and see no wrong if they obtain information by deception when an overriding public interest can be claimed for story."

"In order to comply with the ICO's orders newspapers will have to start training journalists to use legal techniques or they themselves could face action", said Pounder.

"If a newspaper publishes a story which the journalist has written about an individual which has used personal data obtained by deception, then the newspaper could also be in breach of the Seventh Principle [of the Data Protection Act] which requires all appropriate steps to be taken to guard against unlawful processing. This means training journalists not to use such methods complained of in the Commissioner's new report."

The Commissioner's report says that most investigations agency representative bodies and press representative groups have responded positively to his recommendations and communicated with their members about their obligations, and that he was disappointed with only a few of them.

Footnote: Dr Chris Pounder was a consultant with Pinsent Masons until September 2008. He now runs a new training business, Amberhawk.

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