A quite alarming front has opened in the war of attrition that is the debate about personal security and privacy. This is entirely separate from the never-ending saga about government surveillance and privacy issues.
It seems that the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has provided a list of 101 (some reports have it at 102) companies it has investigated and had to hand to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee but has insisted that they remain classified.
What’s the issue? Andrew Grice, political editor of The Independent, wrote on 27 July, that ‘banks, pharmaceuticals, law, insurance and financial services companies have used private investigators for years to get private data’.
He said these ‘blue-chip hackers’ used mobile phone records and bank statements among other things. He reported that ‘their clients also include wealthy individuals.
One Law for Some, Another for Others?
It would appear that there are inconsistencies in treatment and possibly an attempt to protect certain powerful companies and individuals from having to answer why they used investigators to get people’s private data. Newspapers and individuals can be investigated and named when they have been hacking into other people’s data, but big ‘respectable’ companies must be kept secret?
So, the question is should such information be kept secret to all but a few MPs, or should it be widely known? We all understand that sometimes in the name of security and/or fighting crime, then some information is best kept confidential.
But is this in the same league?
SOCA’s statement reads: ‘The fact that they (the clients, respectable companies) have been identified does not mean that they placed instructions in the knowledge that the private investigators or their agents would act unlawfully.’
In a hard-hitting editorial in the same newspaper, Andreas Whittam Smith lambasted ‘respected firms’ for taking high quality data that could only have been found by ‘illegal methods’, yet they took it and remained silent.
Whittam Smith compared the transaction of posh firms buying dodgily acquired data as ‘like purchasing stolen goods.’
He also gave short shrift to another reason SOCA gave not to make public the details of possible crimes, that ‘the information if published might undermine the financial viability of major organisations by tainting them with public association with criminality.’ They should have thought of that before ‘desaling with disreputable private investigators.’
As Whittam Smith pointed out, the ‘suspect’s financial viability’ is not a principle of justice that should influence whether an enquiry is carried out.
Understandably, one of the journalists, Neil Wallis, former editor of The News of The World who was arrested and questioned over phone hacking, is angry. He told The Independent, ‘None of the evidence was anything but remotely circumstantial’. He spent 19 months ‘unemployable on bail before being cleared.’
He asked, ‘what’s the difference between me and a posh lawyer who allegedly paid private investigators to break the law?’ The difference appears to be that the one group are respectable business people and the other tabloid journalists.
That’s not to say we are wrong to be outraged that numbers of journalists were involved in hacking the phones of the innocent and some law enforcement officers were complicit in that. But that was, and to an extent still is, being exposed to public and jury scrutiny.
These new matters are still being hidden in the hope they don’t see the light of day. It may be that public pressure will change that. This is one story that will run for some way yet before it runs into the sand.
Other revealing blogs:
When Campaigning for Web Freedom Gets Real, Dirty and Personal, 11 February 2013
Big Data Is Big News, Big Opportunities and a Big Problem, 30 January 2013
Scams Are Out to Get You, Online and Off, 21 May 2012
Image: Rico Shen