The phone operator Vodafone has handed over the mobile phone records of more than 1,700 News UK staff, including many journalists, to the Metropolitan Police, The Times newspaper reports. The news emerged as the British government announced it was preparing new counter-terrorism legislation giving the police new powers of investigation.
The worrying report, published in The Times two days ago, said Vodafone UK in March this year inadvertently sent the police details of calls made by 1,757 News UK staff members between 2005 and 2007. News UK is the parent company of The Times, The Sunday Times and The Sun.
Vodafone blamed “human error” for the massive data transfer. In October last year, the police were investigating allegations of corrupt payments to officials made by journalists working for News International, which was later renamed News UK after the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, they asked Vodafone to provide the phone records of one journalist.
Vodafone provided much more than this to the officers running the investigation, codenamed Operation Elveden. It was a serious mistake and it could have been rectified if the police had deleted the data immediately and notified the operator and the news group.
However, Scotland Yard waited three months before telling Vodafone and News UK about the mistake. During that time, the data, which could have seriously compromised the confidentiality of many journalists' sources, remained available to the police.
Times journalist Sean O'Neill believes the “Metropolitan police conducted a data analysis of the material”, and returned it to Vodafone only after seven months, despite requests from the operator.
For its part, the police acknowledged “the sensitivity of the excess data” and agreed to use it only for a policing purpose, where people were "already charged”.
The incident, which comes to light at a time when new counter-terrorism legislation is being prepared, illustrates the lack of control enjoyed by Scotland Yard, whose powers of interception are counterbalanced by a mere advisory body.
The new legislative provisions will boost the powers of the police. Despite the concerns of privacy campaigners, the home secretary annuncing the new bill, Theresa May, said at a news conference three days ago that she regretted the majority were not in favour of strengthening the authorities' powers to intercept communications. But she said this was only a matter of time.
On a different matter, six British journalists have launched a legal action against the Metropolitan Police for recording their activities and personal information in a database maintained by the National Domestic Extremists and Disorder Intelligence Unit.
It appeared that this police unit, which monitors religious and political extremists, deployed physical surveillance resources to document the movements of some journalists. Britain's press union, the National Union of Journalists launched an appeal in October last year to journalists to request Scotland Yard under the Data Protection Action to provided them with any personal information held about them by the police. “I've been monitored ... when I do journalism-events I‘ve been covering”, said Mark Thomas, one of the six journalists suing Scotland Yard.
The United Kingdom is ranked 33rd of 180 countries in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders.