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
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
In this photo illustration, the Twitter logo and hashtag '#Ring!' is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced its initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013 in London, England. Twitter went public on the NYSE opening at USD 26 per share, valuing the company's worth at an estimated USD 18 billion.
news

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch as John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock
tv

Co-creator Mark Gatiss dropped some very intriguing hints ahead of the BBC drama's return next year

News
people

London 'needs affordable housing'

Arts and Entertainment
music Band accidentally drops four-letter description at concert
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines