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Were the police hacking phones too?

4 November 2011

"As an American who spent many years in this underground industry, I can tell you
that the British phone hacking scandal has exposed only a tiny part of a vast criminal network." So Frank Ahearn wrote in The Spectator a few weeks ago: he spent his life as a "skip-tracer" (as they’re called in America), dealing in the black
market for information. There are many clients, he says, and journalists are just one part of it. The people he worked for included husbands investigating wives, insurance companies trying to
expose dodgy claims and – yes – even the police, using "skip-tracers" to solve cases.

Finally, this aspect of the British hacking industry is beginning to be made public. A legal campaign group called Justice has today claimed that, in Britain, illegal phone hacking may well have
been carried out by police officers too. Its report "Freedom from Suspicion" includes a section discussing
the police’s response to the News of the World scandal:

"In September 2009, however, Assistant Commissioner John Yates gave evidence to the House of Commons Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in which he stated with some confidence that
the Metropolitan Police did not regard the activity of hacking into another person’s voicemail as a criminal offence if the voicemail had already been listened to by its intended

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OK, so they didn’t consider it a crime. But that doesn’t mean they were doing it themselves, does it? Actually, it might mean exactly that:

"For if the Metropolitan Police believed in good faith that section 1(1) of RIPA did not criminalise listening to voicemail or reading email after they had been heard or read by the
intended recipient, then it was surely reasonable for the police to conclude that they themselves did not need an interception warrant to intercept voicemail or email in similar

Ahearn argued that what Britain knows as the News of the World hacking scandal was just the tip of a far larger iceberg – the thriving, global black market in illegal information.
Glenn Muclaire, a former footballer, might just have been one of the few stupid enough to keep meticulous records of his crimes. Ahearn said that a professional "skip-tracer" had a motto:
"once the information has gone to the client, erase all trace of the transaction".

It makes you wonder just how big the British industry is, how many Glenn Mulcaires there are out there – and if this scandal may yet be far bigger than we realise.

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  • In2minds

    RIPA has been a disaster, there is no ‘regulation’. Hence it’s a gift to all public servants to act as they please regardless of the intentions of any law so putting them beyond the law. Remember spy chips in wheelie bins?

    However, I agree with salieri, “morally outrageous behaviour” might not be criminal. As RIPA is a fine example of Nulabour law making at its worst perhaps it needs amending.

  • salieri

    This indignation sounds rather disingenuous. The RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000) established the criminal offence of “unlawful interception” (of any postal communication or telecommunication, whether public or private, within the UK). But this offence can only be committed if the interception takes place “in the course of its transmission”. What’s more, by section 1(3), the affected party can sue for damages but again only when interception occurs “in the course of its transmission”.

    Thus once it has been transmitted, i.e. heard or seen by the intended recipient, the communication can be hacked into without breaking either the criminal or the civil law. Hacking may be despicable and may interfere with so-called rights to privacy under the Human Rights legislation, but it is not a crime.

    For the same reason, the News of the World scandal was mainly about morally outrageous behaviour rather than criminality. Whether such moral indignation would or should be aroused by hacking on the part of law-enforcement authorities – including the police of course but also HMRC – is another question entirely.

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