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ICO 'too scared' to clobber press for data breaches

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A senior investigator for the Information Commissioner's Office has told the Leveson inquiry he was warned off pursuing the press for data breaches by his bosses.

Alexander Owen, also a former police officer, had been looking into possible breaches of the Data Protection Act by a south London private investigation agency when he uncovered around 17,000 requests for confidential information from journalists.

The requests were laid out in notebooks at the home of private eye Steve Whittamore and included ones for the ex-directory numbers of members of Milly Dowler's family, along with requests for their criminal records and car ownership details.

"I can say, an awful lot of the names of the victims that are coming up in hacking are in... Steve Whittamore's books. An awful lot," Owens told the inquiry (PDF).

Owens added that the books, along with other evidence, allowed the investigators to identify the newspaper and journalist behind each request, as well as the "blaggers" who got the private information.

But when he took the evidence to his superiors, Richard Thomas – who was the commissioner at the time – and Francis Aldhouse – who was deputy commissioner at the time – they didn't want to pursue the cases, he told the inquiry.

"There was a look of horror on Mr Aldhouse's face and he said, 'We can't take them on, they're too big for us'," Owens said.

A few weeks later, Owens said, his line manager, Jean Lockett, told him: "You're not to go near the press, you're not to make any approach to any reporters or the press". When he protested, he said, she told him that Thomas was "dealing with" the issue through the Press Complaints Council.

Owens was left to focus only on the blaggers and private investigators, rather than the media, he claimed, which he said was because his bosses had been too afraid to pursue journalists.

"The decision not to pursue any journalist was based solely on fear – fear of the power, wealth and influence of the press and the fear of the backlash that could follow if the press turned against ICO," he said in his written statement (PDF), which accompanied the testimony.

Eventually, Owens went to The Independent with the information, despite facing the risk of prosecution for revealing details of the investigation.

Robert Jay, QC, raised the question of whether or not Owens' evidence was reliable because he had left the ICO under acrimonious circumstances, but Owens dismissed that idea as "absolute rubbish". ®

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