(Daily Mail) – Scotland Yard has examined the mobile phone records of more than 1,700 journalists, lawyers and staff working for News UK, it emerged last night.
In a major breach of privacy laws, Vodafone handed over data from phones belonging to journalists, lawyers, secretarial staff and senior executives working for The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun newspapers between 2005 and 2007 to the Metropolitan Police.
Detectives working on Operation Elveden, which is investigating alleged payments by journalists to ‘public officials’, requested data last October from the phone of one reporter who had been arrested.
But when the telecoms giant mistakenly disclosed a mass of staff phone records, police held onto the material for seven months despite requests to return it.
It is feared that the data could have compromised confidential journalistic sources.
Detectives conducted an analysis of the records and built a spreadsheet listing outgoing calls made from 1,757 phones, even know they knew the information relating to innocent journalists had been passed on improperly.
The data breach is now being investigated by the privacy watchdog bodies, the Information Commissioner (ICO) and the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO).
The latter, which is also investigating police use of surveillance powers against journalists, said the case was of ‘very significant concern’ and it has urged the publisher News UK to take up the matter with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.
The case comes amid concerns about the extent to which police use surveillance powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) against journalists and their sources.
The Met used Ripa to find who leaked the police log of the Plebgate incident to The Sun while Essex Police used the law to discover a journalist’s source in the Chris Huhne speeding points affair.
Yesterday Vodafone said the material was ‘a corrupted dataset’.
A spokesman told The Times: ‘We wrote to the Met to express our grave concern that the police continued to retain the data released to them in error and made it clear to them that any assumption that meaningful conclusions could be drawn from any aspect of the corrupted dataset was highly questionable.’
The Met said it conducted an analysis on the ‘excess data’ to extract information about the phone contact between five more people – including journalists, lawyers and sources – who were under suspicion in police investigations into journalistic activity.
A spokesman said: ‘We recognised the sensitivity of the excess data provided and ensured it was retained securely, until it was returned to Vodafone. The Metropolitan Police consulted with the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office, and the Information Commissioner on how this error should best be managed.
‘The Met agreed that it would only use the material for a policing purpose, when in the interests of justice to do so, and where people were already charged and facing criminal proceedings.’
An IOCCO investigation has exonerated the Met, blaming Vodafone for the error.