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Journalists and private investigators who illegally obtain and trade in personal information will face jail sentences under planned changes to the Data Protection Act.

Ministers want to replace the current maximum sentence of an unlimited fine next April with a spell of up to two years inside.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) has repeatedly called for tougher penalties for those who blag telephone, medical and other records.

On Thursday justice minister Michael Wills launched a consultation. Alongside harsher punishments, a new public interest defence will aim to protect legitimate journalistic inquiry.

Wills said: "The Government have no intention of curtailing responsible investigative journalism, so we are also consulting on commencing the new defence under section 55 for those who can show that they acted for the purposes of journalism, art and literature with a view to publishing journalistic, literary or artistic material, in the reasonable belief that the obtaining, disclosing or procuring was in the public interest."

The ICO highlighted abuses by journalists and private investigators in its 2006 report What Price Privacy? The unlawful trade in confidential personal information.

It took this summer's high profile tabloid celebrity phone hacking scandal to prompt action, however. As El Reg pointed out, the issue of dodgy gumshoes listening in on unsecured voicemails was relatively insignificant compared to burgeoning trade in data obtained by pretexting and corrupt insiders.

The consultation document is here. ®

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