Info Commissioner jail terms illegal personal data trade

06 July 2006

John Pullicino

The UK Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, has called for jail terms of up to two years in a bid to counter the illegal black market trade in people’s private details. So worried is the Commissioner by the current level of abuse that on 12 May he used his powers under the Data Protection Act to deliver a report to Parliament on the situation calling for the tough stance. This is the first time that the Commissioner has submitted a Special Report to Parliament.

Currently the maximum penalty for illegal buying and selling personal data is only a fine (of up to £5,000 in a magistrate’s Court or unlimited in crown courts). Richard Thomas remarked that abuse of the law is widespread, with journalists, financial institutions and local council debt collectors listed among those paying private investigators and tracing agents for data.

The report called “What price privacy?” highlights the existence of the trade in buying and selling people’s personal information such as current addresses, details of car ownership, ex-directory telephone numbers or records of calls made, criminal records and bank account details.

Mr Thomas added: “Low penalties devalue this serious data protection offence in the public mind and mask the seriousness of the crime, even within the judicial system. They do little to deter those who seek to buy or supply private information that should remain private. We are proposing the introduction of a prison sentence of up to two years for people convicted by the crown courts and up to six months for those found guilty by magistrates. The aim is not to send more people to prison but to discourage all who might be tempted to engage in this trade – whether as suppliers or buyers. Those who need or want personal information must use legal methods.”

The full report can be found here.