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T-Mobile coughs to data theft

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T-Mobile has admitted it was the operator whose staff sold customer data to competitors, but can't understand why the Information Commissioner decided to share the information.

Staff at the network operator had developed a sideline selling customer records to brokers who then called up the customers to offer alternative contracts.

T-Mobile had been told not to mention the case to anyone as there were prosecutions pending, so the operator was pretty surprised when the Information Commissioner decided to spill the beans yesterday to help his political case for harsher sentences for data breaches.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is trying to whip up support for custodial sentences for those convicted of stealing data, but public sympathy for celebrities who had their phone records stolen is minimal. The T-Mobile case, on the other hand, demonstrates why normal people should care too, which is why the details came out in the Commissioner's response to the Government consultation about the introduction of prison sentences.

T-Mobile seemingly couldn't have handled the case better. The operator received complaints that customers were getting curiously well-informed cold calls, so T-Mobile investigated - as operators are surprisingly willing to do. It took its evidence to the ICO, who investigated further and told the operator to say nothing to anybody until the case was complete.

But that restriction didn't apply to the ICO, who published the details to support its argument. The ICO didn't name the operator, but it didn't take long to get denials out of all the other operators, forcing T-Mobile to admit it was them, despite promising the ICO they wouldn't say anything.

As for the data stolen, it mainly consisted of customer details and contract end dates - annoying to have public but not exactly state secrets. Customer details are in the phone book, and most people will tell you their contract renewal date if you call them up and ask (as cold callers are wont to do).

Whether one approves of custodial sentences for nicking data, or not, it's clear that the ICO has manipulated this case into a cause celebre with impact far beyond its real importance. ®

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