Exclusive: Hacking cover-up scandal as police refuse to name 'blue-chip' companies who used corrupt private investigators

 

Investigations Reporter

The Serious Organised Crime Agency has refused to disclose the names of blue-chip companies who commissioned corrupt private investigators who broke the law because revealing them would damage the firms’ commercial interests, The Independent has learnt.

Sir Ian Andrews, the agency’s chairman, told Parliament that publishing the information could “substantially undermine the financial viability of major organisations by tainting them with public association with criminality”.

In an extraordinary letter to MPs, the former senior Ministry of Defence official said the evidence held for years by Soca, which was revealed last month by this newspaper, has now been “formally classified” because the information may breach the human rights of the law firms, insurance companies and wealthy individuals who hired corrupt private investigators.

The decision to protect the reputation of certain business sectors is in stark contrast to police action against the practice among newspapers.

The MP Keith Vaz, chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said he would be writing to every firm in the FTSE 100 and the top 100 legal firms to ask them to declare whether they have commissioned private investigators, and for what purpose.

He added: “Socahas indicated that it is prepared to give the client list to us in confidence. This has still not been received. It is a disappointment that this is yet another document the Committee has had to receive in secret from Soca.

“In view of the public interest, openness and transparency may be the only way that the public can be reassured that no one is above the law and [that] Soca have done all they can to address this issue.”

Sir Ian and Trevor Pearce, the director-general of Soca- dubbed “Britain’s FBI” - were summoned to appear before MPs after The Independent revealed the organisation knew six years ago that law firms, telecoms giants and insurance companies were hiring private investigators hack, blag and steal private information to further their commercial interests.

Much of the intelligence on the blue-chip industries’ employment of criminals - contained in a confidential 2008 Soca report codenamed “Project Riverside” - came from historic Metropolitan Police investigations. Yet almost nothing was done to disrupt the unlawful trade – or target the clients that fuelled the demand.

The Independent has been told the identities of several of the blue-chip clients contained in the material seized by Soca. They include a corporate giant, a celebrity who regularly broadcasts to millions of people, a well-known media personality and a wealthy businessman.

The Home Affairs Select Committee was angry that Soca withheld the full, unredacted version of Project Riverside during its inquiry into private investigators last year. After its existence was disclosed, Mr Vaz ordered Soca to reveal the list of clients who “hired private investigators to break the law”.

In a series of letters between Sir Ian, Mr Pearce and the Labour MP, published quietly on the parliamentary website, it emerged Mr Vaz made further demands for “all the information Soca holds on private investigators and their links with the police and private sector”.

In his reply, dated 12 July, Sir Ian wrote: “Given the lack of certainty over guilty knowledge on the part of [the] clients, and the impact that any publication might have on those named (recognising the requirement for public authorities to have respect for individuals’ private and family life under the Human Rights Act 1998), together with the possible prejudice which any publication might have on ongoing criminal investigations and future regulatory action, the list of…clients which Soca has created following your request has been formally classified.

He said: “The fact that they have been identified does not mean that they placed their instructions in the knowledge that the private investigators or their agents would act unlawfully.”

Later he added: “This reflects the fact that the information it contains, if published, might prejudice individual security or liberty, impede the investigation (or facilitate the commission) of serious crime or substantially undermine the financial viability of major organisations by tainting them with public association with criminality.”

One of the key hackers mentioned in Project Riverside has admitted that 80 per cent of his client list was taken up by law firms, wealthy individuals and insurance companies. Only 20 per cent was attributed to the media, which was investigated by the Leveson Inquiry after widespread public revulsion following the phone-hacking scandal.

Neil Wallis, the former deputy editor of News of the World, said: “This is completely outrageous. It’s one law for the rich, another for the not-so-rich who also happen to rattle the cages of the powerful on occasion.”

Scotland Yard revealed last week that the cost of the combined inquiries into newspapers - Elveden, Weeting and Tuleta - were expected to cost nearly £40 million up to their expected conclusion in April 2015.

Many at senior level at the official information watchdog are deeply frustrated by the police and Soca’s failure to tackle the blue-chip clients of criminal private investigators such as law firms and banks.

A senior source at the Information Commissioner’s office said: “It is market forces. If you don’t cut out the demand, it won’t stop. The City drives the corporate spooks but the big boys always escape. We should be saying to the clients that if you buy this information, the financial and reputational damage will be so great, it wouldn’t be worth doing it.”

In a sign of the gravity of the situation, it is understood Soca has launched a frantic hunt for leaks inside its organisation since The Independent revealed that it had sat on evidence of widespread blue-chip hacking for years. It is understood that staff have also been reminded of their obligations under the Official Secrets Act after The Independent published the story.

Q&A: Why Project Riverside matters

Q. What is Project Riverside?

A. It is the name of a review by the Serious Organised Crime Agency into investigations by both Scotland Yard and the Information Commissioner into the murky world of criminal private detectives between 2003 and 2007.

Q. Why is it so important?

A. The eight-page report shows detailed police knowledge of criminal PIs working for industries besides newspapers, such as law firms and insurance companies; yet almost all of them were never brought to justice.

Q. Why is it so sensitive?

A. It shows that police knew of widespread criminality among PIs throughout the period when the Met failed to take proper action against the News of the World. Project Riverside reveals some offenders placed eBlaster Trojans on victims’ computers, yet action was not taken against them.

Q. Why is Fleet Street so angry about it?

A. Project Riverside shows that other industries besides newspapers have engaged for years in the unlawful trade in personal information, yet none has been prosecuted for commissioning illegal acts.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's pic YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain