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ICO calls for clampdown on data black market

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Information commissioner Richard Thomas has called for prison sentences of up to two years for the illegal buying and selling of personal information.

He made the call along with the presentation of a report on the issue to Parliament on 12 May. This is based on concerns that confidential information can too easily be obtained improperly from public and private organisations, causing significant harm and distress to individuals.

A spokesperson for the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) told Government Computing News that it has evidence that information on individuals is being illegally sold by some public sector employees.

"If people really want information from a public authority they will try to bribe a junior official," the spokesperson said. "The thing for public authorities is to watch out for it and make sure their staff know it is a criminal offence.

"That is why we are calling for the two year prison sentence."

The spokesperson added that there is also a problem with some people trying to obtain information by pretending to be someone else, and that public authorities sometimes unwittingly encourage the abuse.

"We think some of the buyers of information are public authorities, who are often trying to chase up debts and subcontract it to a private detective, who in turn are using illegal means to get information."

The report, titled "What price privacy?", highlights the existence of an industry devoted to illegally buying and selling people's personal information, such as current addresses, details of car ownership, ex-directory telephone numbers or records of calls made, criminal records and bank account details.

It arises from investigations carried out by the ICO sometimes using search warrant powers. Documents seized revealed evidence of a large scale market in the trading of personal information.

The ICO said penalties are low and do not have a deterrent effect. One major case resulted in conditional discharges for the perpetrators.

Richard Thomas said: "People care about their privacy and have a right to expect that their personal details should remain secure from those with no right to see them. Disclosure of even apparently innocuous personal information can be highly damaging in some situations – such as the address of a woman fleeing domestic violence.

"Organisations can also be victims of this pernicious trade. Advances in technology enable public and private bodies to hold vast amounts of information about us, but they need to be fully aware of the risks of unauthorised disclosure and take strong precautions. Otherwise the benefits will disappear if companies and government lose the trust and confidence of customers, staff and citizens.

"Plugging the gaps becomes ever more urgent as the government rolls out its programme of joined up public services and joined up computer systems.

"Low penalties devalue this serious data protection offence in the public mind and mask the seriousness of the crime, even within the judicial system. They do little to deter those who seek to buy or supply private information that should remain private. We are proposing the introduction of a prison sentence of up to two years for people convicted by the crown courts and up to six months for those found guilty by magistrates.

"The aim is not to send more people to prison but to discourage all who might be tempted to engage in this trade – whether as suppliers or buyers. Those who need or want personal information must use legal methods."

Thomas plans to publish a follow up report in six months to record responses, reactions and progress towards implementing the report's proposals. He also hopes that the issue will be raised in Parliament.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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