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Data Protection: Interception of Communications

Volume 689: debated on Monday 29 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Further to the Information Commissioner’s report What Price Privacy Now?, whether the individuals who had their communications intercepted have a legal right to be so informed by the relevant news agencies.

My Lords, it is illegal to obtain information through the unauthorised interception of communications. Where organisations process personal data, the Data Protection Act 1998 requires them to act fairly and to notify individuals of the purpose for which data will be used. News organisations may be exempt from this requirement where they are processing data with a view to publication and reasonably believe that publication will be in the public interest.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. Does not the Information Commissioner’s report, combined with the Motorman case last week, indicate that there is still a serious problem in this respect? Is it not true that the many hundreds, if not thousands, of people who have had their privacy invaded, often for no better reason than keyhole peeping, have a right to an apology from those media groups responsible and possibly a legal right of redress? If individuals are worried about coming forward, as many of them will be, perhaps the PCC could take the lead and order those newspapers to make an apology unless there is a continuing and legitimate—and I mean legitimate—public interest defence.

My Lords, noble Lords will know that the Motorman inquiry—a three-year investigation into data protection offences—led to a parallel police investigation. Noble Lords will also know that we are consulting on whether to increase the sanctions under Section 55 of the Data Protection Act and that the Information Commissioner is producing guidance for journalists on the use of data.

My Lords, will the Minister and her colleagues in the Government also approach the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission and the code of practice committee of editors who have refused to give any concrete proposal to the Information Commissioner in response to his suggestion that the code of practice ought to be amended to make it clear that without an individual’s consent, it is not acceptable to obtain information about private life by bribery, impersonation, subterfuge or payment? The inaction of the Press Complaints Commission leaves those of us who would support self-regulation with very little armour left.

My Lords, I have indicated that we are currently consulting. The consultation has just closed, and we will be producing reports on Section 55 of the Data Protection Act and on whether to make it an offence to sell or offer to sell personal data that have been or subsequently are obtained or procured knowingly or recklessly without the consent of the data controller. Within that, the Information Commissioner is looking at a range of different ways in which he can work closely with bodies such as the Press Complaints Commission to ensure that such data are dealt with properly.

My Lords, who owns the information gathered by CCTV cameras? Can the Minister explain who owns that intellectual property?

My Lords, the way in which CCTV cameras are operated means that the information is contained within them. There is not an issue of ownership, as such. Noble Lords will know that there is always a question about the ownership of imagery. It is clear that information can be gathered only for the purposes for which it has been said to be gathered and anyone has the right to complain about the information gathered or the images that the cameras have.

My Lords, will the Minister explain why the Pesticides Safety Directorate has written to its correspondents warning them about intercepted telephone calls? Can she say whether that practice is now common with agencies and government departments?

My Lords, I do not know whether it has written, but I am sure the noble Countess’s information is correct. It is not common practice to do so, but it is right and proper that where there are concerns about information, data controllers feel able to make sure that they notify people about them.