Blue-chip hacking scandal: FBI will be asked to investigate corporations accused of illegally accessing data on private individuals

Information Commissioner to request US authorities look into eight implicated companies

The blue-chip hacking scandal has taken a new twist as it emerged that the FBI is set to be called in to investigate eight companies accused of hiring UK-based private investigators that illegally obtained private information about the public.

The Information Commissioner has announced he will contact authorities in America after his inquiry found several US companies employed British rogue PIs that hacked, blagged and stole sensitive data. The investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which has also uncovered “significant” documentary evidence of criminal offences by 11 UK-based clients, was launched last year after The Independent revealed that the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) had ignored dozens of files on the PIs’ corporate clients.

In a letter to the Home Affairs Select Committee ahead of his appearance next week, the Information Commissioner revealed his investigation into the historical material – codenamed Operation Spruce – is set to take him to the US where he may seek co-operation with the FBI. Christopher Graham also revealed his investigators – backed by the National Crime Agency – were preparing “Demand for Access” notices to obtain further evidence from the 11 UK-based clients who hired four criminal investigators jailed in 2012 for conspiring to defraud by “blagging” – or stealing – personal information through phone calls to banks and companies.

He also refused to rule out using search warrants if the organisations failed to comply with his requests.

“The documentary evidence we hold in relation to these clients is considered significant, and this gives us the best opportunity of instigating criminal proceedings,” Mr Graham said in his letter to the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Chairman Keith Vaz said: “The Information Commissioner’s findings clearly reveal significant evidence of criminal wrongdoing by clients in data which was held by Soca for so many years.

“The Commissioner has been refreshingly proactive in his approach to this investigation, in direct contrast to what went before. It is important that this approach continues and those who have broken the law are brought to justice.

“The committee will be looking to ascertain a timetable for the further investigation and potential prosecutions when the Commissioner appears before it on Tuesday. It is vital that the victims are not forgotten and that justice prevails.”

Last June, The Independent revealed that a Soca investigation into the PIs, which first started in 2006, had uncovered an array of blue-chip clients that had hired the rogue PIs and helped to fuel the unlawful trade in personal data.

The four PIs were jailed for minor offences in 2012, but the organisations that hired them escaped scrutiny until The Independent’s disclosures last year.

The case raised accusations of double standards at a time when the press is at the centre of the largest criminal investigation in British history over practices which include the hiring of corrupt private eyes.

Following months of pressure to identify the clients, Trevor Pearce, the agency’s Director-General, eventually agreed to pass files on 98 clients over to the ICO last August to investigate for criminal breaches of the Data Protection Act (DPA).

In his letter to Mr Vaz, Mr Graham said: “Nineteen clients are active and there is evidence of a criminal breach and civil breach of the DPA. However, eight of these are based outside of our jurisdiction.

“There are 42 clients that are active and, while there is no evidence of a criminal breach of the DPA, further inquiries are required to determine their exact status in relation to a potential civil breach of the DPA.”

Mr Graham also revealed that the National Crime Agency – which took over from Soca last year and is helping with the ICO’s inquiries – had established most of the overseas blue-chip clients in question were based in the United States.

He said: “Our plan is to contact the US Federal Trade Commission and seek their assistance in contacting the relevant authority, which may be the FBI, and request a research profile on the organisations and individuals concerned.”

The names of almost 100 blue-chip companies identified by Millipede – the Soca investigation into PIs – were handed to the Home Affairs Select Committee in July. But the agency’s then chairman, Sir Ian Andrews, communicated the agency’s decision – in which he subsequently explained he played no part – to classify the list to protect the “financial viability of major organisations” rather than “tainting them with public association with criminality”.

One week later he resigned after it emerged that he had failed to declare to the committee that he owned a private company with his wife. The list remains under wraps with the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Those on the client list compiled by Soca reportedly include X Factor mogul Simon Cowell, accountancy firm Deloitte, the banks Credit Suisse and Chase Manhattan, and the law firms Richards Butler (now Reed Smith), Herbert Smith Freehills and Clyde and Co. There is no suggestion they knew that the private detectives they employed may have been breaking the law.

After The Independent broke the scandal, Graham Freeman, one of the private investigators, said: “If they were to name our clients, on the evidence we were charged on, our clients would be open to the same conspiracy [charges].

“Soca doesn’t want to give up the Millipede names because if they did, they would be forced to investigate them and charge them for conspiracy to defraud as they did us. On that list are the names of law firms, banks and insurance companies who all used private detectives for all sorts of reasons.”

Quest for truth: How Soca came clean

22 June The Independent reveals Soca sat for years on evidence some of Britain’s most respected companies hired rogue private eyes.

18 July The Independent reveals Soca had declared the clients should not be identified because it would damage their commercial interests.

22 July The Independent reveals Sir Ian Andrews, then Soca chair, failed to declare he had a management consultancy company with his wife.

24 July Soca passes the list of 102 blue-chip companies to the Home Affairs Select Committee, but classifies the information to save companies being “tainted with public association with criminality”.

1 August Sir Ian resigns.

31 August Soca finally hands the historic evidence on 98 blue-chip clients to the Information Commissioner.

News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform