Clampdown urged on information black market

People involved in the illegal buying and selling of confidential information should be imprisoned for up to two years, according to a government watchdog.

The information commissioner makes the request after uncovering evidence of a “pervasive and widespread industry” of buying and selling everything from ex-directory telephone numbers to bank details.

Richard Thomas says clamping down on those involved in this market was crucial as more and more confidential information was held by banks, private companies and public sector organisations.

The government’s move towards a national ID cards scheme, and expansion of IT schemes in the health, welfare and criminal justice systems across the country also made it a pressing issue, he says.

“We cannot sensibly build an information society unless its foundations and its systems are secure,” Mr Thomas warns in a new report.

“Plugging the gaps becomes ever more urgent as the government rolls out its programme of joined-up public services and joined-up computer systems under the banner of transformational government.

“However laudable the aim, we need to make sure that increasing access to government held information for those with a legitimate need to know does not also open the door to those who seek to buy, beguile or barter their way to information that is rightly denied to them in law.”

The suppliers of the information are generally private investigators, the report finds, who obtain their information by “blagging” – pretending to be someone they are not – or through contacts with corrupt employees in companies.

Buyers are more often that not tabloid journalists, seeking information on celebrities, but insurance firms looking to verify claims, criminals trying to intimidate witnesses and local authorities tracing debtors are also common clients.

The going rate for information ranges from £17.50 for confirming someone’s address against the electoral register, to up to £500 for a criminal records bureau check and up to £750 for details about a mobile phone account.

Currently, people found guilty of offence under section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998 for obtaining, disclosing or procuring information without consent are subject to an unlimited fine.

But in reality the courts often hand out nothing more “than a derisory fine or a conditional discharge”, Mr Thomas says – prompting him to call for a change in the law to ensure offenders can be sent to jail.

In the meantime, he calls on the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) to a take a tougher line with journalists seeking to buy illegal information and for the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to amend its guidelines on how data on debtors can be obtained.