Naming the victims of media spying

Published August 2009

The Guardian

August 2009

The Guardian today reveals the identities of scores of public figures whose confidential details were extracted from supposedly secure datbases by a network of private investigators working for news organisations.

The victims include politicians, union leaders, a high court judge, sports personalities, film stars, rival journalists and thousands of members of the public. Repeatedly breaking data-protection laws, newspapers and magazines commissioned the network to obtain personal information from social security records which include every adult in the country; the DVLA which covers every vehicle owner; the police national computer with crime histories and intelligence; and British Telecom and mobile phone companies with millions of home addresses and ex-directory numbers. They also conned hotels, banks, prisons, trade unions and the post office into handing over sensitive information.

The victims’ identities are contained in paperwork which has been suppressed since it was seized six years ago from a Hampshire private investigator, Steve Whittamore, during an inquiry known as Operation Motorman, run by the Information Commissioner’s Office. The ICO released a statistical summary of the Motorman paperwork but has refused repeatedly to release any of the content with the result that the vast majority of the victims have never been warned that their privacy was compromised.

Following the Guardian’s disclosures in July about illegal phone-hacking by a different private investigator working for the News of the World, the ICO is under increasing pressure to release more of the Motorman material. The House of Commons’ select committee on culture, media and sport has sent a strongly worded request to the new information commissioner, Chris Graham, calling on him to show them the material and to publish a redacted version. Mr Graham is due to appear before the committee on Wednesday (Sept 2nd).

Now the Guardian has been given access to the material in which Steve Whittamore kept detailed records of more than 17,500 requests from more than 400 journalists. It reveals the casual regularity with which newsrooms have treated confidential databases as a library of convenience and the alarming ease with which the security around supposedly well-guarded databases has been repeatedly penetrated. Access to these databases is a criminal offence unless there is a clear public interest to justify it.

The most common target for their efforts was British Telecom. The seized records reveal the names of hundreds of people who asked BT for an ex-directory number to protect their privacy only for the company to be tricked into revealing the number and often the home address to the network’s media clients: comedian John Cleese for his home in London; former Arsenal and England footballer David Seaman for his farm in Hertfordshire; Prince Charles’ personal assistant, Tiggy Legge-Bourke in London; former England cricket captain Mike Atherton in Manchester; Arthur Scargill’s home near Barnsley; comedian Lenny Henry for his family home in Berkshire; and, in a neat irony, the former editor of the News of the World, Phil Hall, for his former rivals at Sunday Business. Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones appears to have had eleven different ex-directory phone numbers handed over for his home in Suffolk.

Among the unwitting victims of security breaches are politicians of all three major parties. The liberal peer Lord Avebury, the Labour MP and minister Peter Hain, the former Conservative chairman Chris Patten were all targets of attempts to extract personal information from BT, although the network appears to have sold data on the wrong Chris Patten. Peter Mandelson’s name crops up repeatedly  in the records as different newspapers attempted to delve into the Labour minister’s private life.

The Labour MP and former Cabinet minister, Peter Kilfoyle, was the target of a successful attempt to find his home address in Liverpool when a journalist supplied his car number to the network which then extracted his supposedly confidential personal records from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Kilfoyle told the Guardian: “I think it’s outrageous that this kind of information can be obtained in this way. I would have thought that the ICO would have let me know. I was a government minister attached to the Cabinet Office at the time.”

Union leaders who were targets include Sir Gavin Laird , former general secretary of the engineering union, and Andy Gilchrist, leader of the firemen’s union. A judge of the court of appeal, Lord Saville, was targetted after he was appointed to chair the inquiry into the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings in Northern Ireland. Rival journalists including Jeremy Paxman, James Naughtie, Kate Ady and Peter Sissons all had their home addresses and ex-directory phone numbers sold to Fleet Street by the network as did two former director generals of the BBC, Michael Checkland and Alasdair Milne, and the former publisher of the Daily Express, Lord Hollick.

The Motorman material, all of which predates its seizure in March 2003, records requests from journalists from one Guardian Media Group title (Observer), two Associated Newspapers titles (Mail and Mail on Sunday), two Express Newspapers title (Daily and Sunday Express), three Mirror Group titles (Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Sunday People) and four News International titles (Times, Sunday Times, Sun and News of the World) as well as magazines and broadcasters.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has made no attempt to prosecute any of the news organisations who were involved. Officials there say they feared the news companies would break their budget by hiring expensive QCs, forcing the ICO to do the same, and by staging lengthy pre-trial hearings which would inflate the cost still further. Attempts to prosecute the members of the network ended in fiasco.

For the specific crime of taking information from the Police National Computer, Whittamore was charged along with two former police officers and a civilian police worker. However, before that came to court, the civilian separately pleaded guilty to stealing police equipment to use in sex games. He was terminally ill and so, instead of being jailed for theft, he was released with a conditional discharge. When all four then came to court for the PNC offences, which are less serious than theft, the judge could not impose a more serious punishment and gave them all conditional discharges. Since that precedent would limit the sentencing in any other related case, the ICO then aborted a plan to try Whittamore and five other members of the network for taking information from other databases.

The Information Commission then attempted to increase the penalty for the offence, a breach of the Data Protection Act currently punishable with a fine of up to £5,000. After a lengthy consultation, the government agreed to include a clause in the 2008 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act introducing a jail sentence of up to two years.  However, the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, the chief executive of the Telegraph group, Murdoch MacLennan, and the then chief executive of News International, Les Hinton, had a private dinner with Gordon Brown who agreed to do what he could to drop the plan. The final version of the 2008 Act deferred the introduction of the sentence but allows the government to introduce it at any point if both houses of parliament vote to do so.

See also ‘How the media broke into confidential databases’.

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