Rogue private investigators' clients face investigation

Man sitting at a computer The clients were identified as part of an inquiry into private investigators

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An investigation has been launched into whether any clients of four rogue private investigators convicted of fraud breached the Data Protection Act.

The Information Commissioner's Office will look at a list of 98 clients, including law firms and celebrities.

It was handed over by the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca). A further nine clients have been withheld at the request of the Met Police.

The private investigators concerned were given jail sentences last year.

They specialised in illegally obtaining private information from organisations such as banks, utility companies and HM Revenue and Customs.

The clients were identified as part of Soca's inquiry, Operation Millipede, into private investigators and the practice of blagging, which is obtaining personal information about someone - such as bank account details and medical history - without their consent.

Soca has said it will not publish the client list, and has ordered the Home Affairs Select Committee, which has a copy, to keep it secret.

Analysis

The comparison has repeatedly been drawn between tabloid journalists who commissioned private investigators to hack phones, and private companies who may have asked them to illegally obtain private information.

The former have been arrested, charged and face prison but, until now, the latter have not been pursued.

The announcement by the ICO is significant because it marks the start of a targeted investigation of the "clients".

However, though documentary evidence is available, it may not prove the clients knew the private investigators were going to use illegal means to do their bidding.

Even if the clients are prosecuted and convicted, they will not face prison, which may fuel the claim that there are tougher standards for journalists who break the law in pursuit of stories.

And Monday's announcement will not end the continuing veil of secrecy over the identity of the long list of clients linked to rogue private investigators. It is likely they would only be revealed if charges are brought against them.

In July, the committee published a breakdown of the clients by company type but did not name them individually.

The list includes 22 law firms, financial services and insurance firms, accountants and two celebrities.

It also includes 16 private investigation agencies, suggesting they often subcontract work to each other.

Up to 100 individuals may have had their details accessed by the private investigators and 91 have been contacted, Soca's director general Trevor Pearce has said.

Mr Pearce and Soca's interim chairman Stephen Rimmer are to appear before the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday.

BBC home affairs correspondent Tom Symonds said the names on the list would probably only emerge if the companies or individuals were prosecuted for breaking the law.

He said the key job for the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) would be to establish if the client knew the investigators were going to get the information via fraudulent means.

The BBC has spoken to one client, a solicitor, who says she commissioned a private investigation agency to track down a man who had stolen £20m from those she represented.

She insists she told the agency in writing not to use illegal means.

A custodial sentence is not possible under both criminal and civil law.

The data watchdog said it had been passed more than 20 files of material from Soca, including correspondence between clients and the private investigators and receipts for payments.

The details of nine of the clients have been withheld as they relate to ongoing police investigations.

The ICO said the initial phase of the investigation was likely to take several months, after which it will publish an update.

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