News organisations responsible for more than 17,000 dubious personal information checks carried out by a disgraced private detective could face civil litigation under plans to notify victims that they were targeted.
Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, is facing a legal challenge to release details of victims identified in Operation Motorman, an investigation into the activities of the Hampshire-based private eye Steve Whittamore, who was convicted of illegally accessing personal data in 2005. Acting on legal advice, the campaign group Hacked Off has written to Mr Graham, demanding he inform the thousands of people who are listed in Whittamore files held by the Information Commissioner's Office as having been the targets of apparently illicit searches, including criminal-records checks, vehicle-registration inquiries and information "blags".
Newspaper groups have in recent months been given access to the files by the ICO. In its letter, seen by The Independent, Hacked Off argues that targets should be notified so they have an opportunity to challenge claims by the news groups that the searches were done in the public interest.
In an official report based on Operation Motorman and subtitled The Unlawful Trade in Confidential Personal Information, the ICO said: "This was not just an isolated business operating occasionally outside the law, but one dedicated to its systematic and highly lucrative flouting."
The Operation Motorman inquiry has been referred to repeatedly during Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry into media standards. Motorman's former chief investigator, Alec Owens, who had been The Independent's whistleblower in stories on the ICO's failure to interrogate journalists, voiced his concerns in evidence to the judge.
Tina Weaver, editor of the Sunday Mirror, a major client of Whittamore's, told the inquiry "it would be surprising" if all the 123 transactions between the private detective and her paper were lawful. Express Newspapers admitted it continued to use Whittamore until July 2010. And the Mail on Sunday said it had spent £20,000 on his services and continued to hire him for 13 months after his arrest in 2003.
In its letter to Mr Graham, who appears before Lord Justice Leveson today, Hacked Off says: "It is likely, if not inevitable, that media organisations have illegally retained and processed data which the ICO has judged to have been illegally obtained."
If the ICO refuses to notify the people who were targeted by Whittamore, Hacked Off and its supporters will likely seek to have that decision subjected to judicial review. The ICO said Mr Graham would be addressing the issue today at the Leveson Inquiry.
The Independent revealed in September that Whittamore's targets included victims of some of the worst crimes from the past 15 years.