Further written evidence from the Information Commissioner's Office (PS 122)
I refer to your letter of 27 July 2009 and must start by offering you an apology. When my Deputy Commissioner wrote to Elizabeth Bradshaw on 17 July 2009 he confirmed that we had not disclosed to the press any of the invoices and ledgers seized during the Operation Motorman investigation. This was his genuine belief at the time but it turns out that it was mistaken. We have now discovered that our press office passed limited and heavily redacted extracts to a journalist at the Guardian over two years ago. These were disclosed to help illustrate the Guardian's coverage of our report 'What price privacy now?" It seems likely that these extracts are the same documents that have been provided to your Committee by a witness.
Your request for me to provide the Committee with the full ledgers and invoices places me in some difficulty. You will recall that none of this material refers to telephone tapping, but rather relates to the 'blagging' of personal information. I nevertheless want to be as cooperative as I can be and I recognise your Committee's power to require the production of papers. I am though faced with Section 59 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (The Act). This makes it a criminal offence for me or any member of my staff to disclose any information that we have obtained for the purposes of the Act and which relates to an identifiable individual. The only exception is where the disclosure is made with lawful authority. A disclosure is made with lawful authority if, amongst other possibilities, the disclosure is necessary in the public interest, having regard to the rights and freedoms or legitimate interests of any person.
I can appreciate that there is a public interest in your Committee having sight of the full documentation to give them an insight into how the unlawful trade in personal Information operates. I can also appreciate that heavily redacted extracts would not be an adequate substitute. However I have to set this against the legitimate privacy interests of those whose details are included in the invoices and ledgers. Some of the information is about celebrities or other public figures, but much of it is about individuals who may be or may have been connected to such persons but are not celebrities or public figures themselves. It includes addresses, ex-directory phone numbers and other personal details which, because they had to be obtained in an underhand manner, are clear1y information that the individuals concerned would not wish to have made public.
In order to satisfy our respective responsibilities may I suggest that my staff should make the full collection of invoices and ledgers available for inspection by you as Committee Chairman or by someone you might wish to nominate to act on your behalf such as the Clerk to the Committee? Such access would of course be on the basis that the confidentiality of any personal information is maintained. This approach would mean that, with explanations that my staff would be happy to provide, you would be able to understand the full nature and extent of the ledgers and invoices without the risk of the personal information therein being taken away or disclosed more widely. So far as redaction is concerned I have no difficulty in principle in supplying you with redacted versions Of the invoices and ledgers. My concern is a practical one. The invoices fill a large cardboard box and there are four A4 ledgers that run to around 100 double sided pages each. I estimate that it would take a member of staff between one and two weeks to perform the redaction needed to remove any personally identifiable information. I also have doubts as to whether supplying redacted versions of all the ledgers and art the invoices would serve any useful purpose. We will willingly supply you with redacted extracts from the invoices and ledgers that could be made public to illustrate the form the documentation takes. However given the extent of redaction necessary it is unlikely that any greater degree of public knowledge and understanding would be achieved by simply increasing the volume of redacted information released.
I hope that I have been able to suggest a way forward that is acceptable to you and your Committee. If so please let me know so that we can start to put the proposed arrangements into place.