Individuals who “knowingly or recklessly” misuse personal data could face a jail term of up to two years, under proposals published by the Ministry of Justice for consultation.
The proposals act on a call for stiffer penalties for those who “blag” or buy personal information, including medical records, that was made by Information Commissioner Richard Thomas two years ago.
In his ‘What Price Privacy?’ report, Thomas argued that the existing £5,000 maximum fine is not a deterrent to private detectives, journalists and others interested in obtaining personal details illegally.
However, media organisations argued that a custodial penalty could have a "chilling effect" on investigative journalism and the disclosure of information in the public interest.
The Ministry of Justice proposals published today make it clear that the government does not want to prevent legitimate journalism and provide a public interest defence.
They also make it clear that people who are duped by blaggers or who disclose information in good faith are not the target of the new penalties.
Despite this, the ministry says new measures are needed “to ensure a robust framework for the protection of public data” and to “increase public confidence in its use.”
The Ministry of Justice is proposing that offences that breach section 55 of the Data Protection Act should carry a maximum penalty of one year in jail if they are heard in a magistrates court and two years if they are heard in a crown court, in addition to the existing fine.
The consultation will run until next January.