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Media phone-hacking? Tip of the iceberg, says leaked police report

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A suppressed report from "Britain's FBI" has revealed that the rich, insurance companies, law firms and telecoms companies hired private investigators to run unlawful hacking and blagging campaigns of the type that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, according to The Independent.

The newspaper reports that the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) was aware about this illegal activity for six years, but did little to disrupt its activity. This comes after the paper apparently saw a leaked copy of a police report into the full scope of criminal activity by private investigators.

Soca had submitted the report covering the use of private investigators to the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics last year, but the issue was neither raised during public sessions nor mentioned in the final Leveson report.

The Independent says the "bombshell report" - codenamed Project Riverside - found that rich individuals and private companies had been hiring unscrupulous private detectives to obtain sensitive information on targets for years.

Tactics used by what the Indy describes as "respected companies" allegedly included bribing police officers, real-time tapping of telephone lines using gadgets planted by ex-BT engineers into street cabinets, computer hacking and perverting the course of justice.

According to "Project Riverside", clients of corrupt private investigators commonly included law firms, including those involved in marriage break-ups, as well as litigators investigating fraud on behalf of private clients.

One private investigator involved in phone hacking, blagging (obtaining confidential data by fooling companies into handing it over) and worse obtained 80 per cent of his work from law firms, the mega-rich and insurance companies, according to the Riverside report. The secret report said that just 20 per cent of this investigator’s work had come from the media, whose activities in the area led to a public outcry, the closure of The News of the World and ongoing criminal proceedings.

One document unearthed by Soca investigators, dubbed The Blagger’s Manual, explained how to trick "banks, HM Revenue and Customs, councils, utility providers and the NHS" into handing over sensitive information on targeted individuals.

"It is probably a good idea to overcome any moral hang-ups you might have about 'snooping' or 'dishonesty', the manual explains. "The fact is that through learning acts of technical deception, you will be performing a task which is not only of value to us or our client, but to industry as a whole."

Labour MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said: “I will be seeking an explanation from Soca as to why this was not told to the Committee when we took evidence from them about the issue of private investigators. It is important that we establish how widespread this practice was and why no action was taken to stop what amounted to criminal activity of the worst kind."

Project Riverside, which ran between 2006 and 2007, uncovered widespread evidence of criminal conduct. None of the suspects were charged until the media-related phone-hacking scandal became public four years later.

The Soca report on the investigation contains “sensitive material” that may allow its content to be withheld from public publication under “public-interest immunity” tests even if it becomes part of future legal proceedings, The Independent reports.

A Soca spokesman told the paper: “Soca produced a confidential report in 2008 on the issue of licensing the private investigation industry. This report remains confidential and Soca does not comment on leaked documents or specific criminal investigations. Information is shared with other partners as required.”

The Soca report was supplied to the Leveson Inquiry in March last year by Ian Hurst, a former British Army intelligence officer whose computer was hacked by malware planted by private investigators working for the News of the World.

Hurst attached the eight-page Soca report to his witness statement, alongside leaked Scotland Yard witness statements detailing alleged illegality involving police and private investigators.

Hurst told The Independent: "As a former British Army intelligence officer, I instantly understood the significance of the classified document and it was clear the unlawful collection of personal data was systemic across a broad range of sectors, and not solely confined to the media.

A Leveson Inquiry spokesman said malpractice outside the media industry was outside its brief. "The terms of reference for the inquiry were absolutely about the culture, practices and ethics of the press and how they engaged with the public, the police and politicians. Evidence on other issues would have been considered to have been outside those terms of reference." ®

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