Scotland Yard is to expand its inquiries into illegal news-gathering techniques at News International by launching a full-scale investigation into computer hacking, The Independent understands.
In the latest twist in the long-running phone-hacking scandal, the Metropolitan Police is assembling a new squad of detectives to look into claims that the News of the World stole secrets from the computer hard drives of public figures, journalists and intelligence officers.
Since March, officers have been carrying out Operation Tuleta, a scoping exercise into the covert use of "Trojan horse" computer viruses – which allow hackers to take control of third-party computers – following allegations made in a BBC Panorama programme.
Now, following complaints from public figures who believe they were targeted by the private investigator Jonathan Rees, who worked for the NOTW and other newspapers, the Met is to scale up its inquiries. So far only two full-scale investigations, Operation Weeting into alleged phone hacking by the NOTW private investigator Glen Mulcaire, and Operation Elveden into the NOTW's alleged bribery of police officers. Operation Tuleta is being staffed by detectives from the Specialist Crime Directorate.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police said: "Since January 2011 the MPS has received a number of allegations regarding breach of privacy which fall outside the remit of Operation Weeting, including computer hacking. Some aspects of this operation will move forward to a formal investigation. There will be a new team reporting DAC Sue Akers. The formation of that team is yet to take place."
A Scotland Yard source told The Independent: "This started as an exercise to investigate the very serious allegations made by Panorama and enough evidence of criminality exists for there to be a successful prosecution. We understand that the hacking of computers by the NOTW covers a much wider period than the three months initially alleged by the BBC programme."
The new investigation threatens to drag other newspaper groups into the scandal. In March, Panorama alleged that, in 2006, Alex Marunchak, then the editor of the Irish edition of the NOTW, hired a private investigator to hack into the computer of a former British Army intelligence officer, Ian Hurst. It was alleged that emails and documents from Mr Hurst's hard drive were hacked, along with correspondence between him and a number of people including IRA agents. Among those whose emails were allegedly stolen is Greg Harkin, a former journalist on The Independent.
According to the BBC, the Sunday tabloid was trying to find out if Mr Hurst or Mr Harkin knew the whereabouts of Freddie Scappaticci, the man alleged to have been "Stakeknife", the British Army's most important undercover agent in the IRA. In 2003, newspapers were speculating about the identity of Stakeknife and several claimed he was Mr Scappaticci, who became the IRA's No 1 assassination target and was placed under a secret protection scheme.
A year later, Mr Hurst and Mr Harkin wrote a book about Stakeknife with more information about his alleged identity and activities within the IRA. Because of concern about the safety of Mr Scappaticci – who has always denied being the spy – a High Court injunction prohibited the publication of details of his appearance and whereabouts.
Any computer hacking by the NOTW could have broken the injunction and, potentially, endangered the safety of Mr Scappaticci and his British handlers. Mr Marunchak has denied any involvement in computer hacking.
Under the terms of the Computer Misuse Act 1990, computer hacking is a more serious crime than phone hacking. "Unauthorised access with intent to commit or facilitate commission of further offences" can carry heavy fines and a jail sentence of up to five years.
A spokesman for News International declined to comment.
How it is done
A "Trojan horse" is a virus that infiltrates a computer and allows the attacker to remove the entire contents of hard drives, steal passwords and read emails.
It most commonly masquerades as valuable and useful software available for download on the internet or through an email link. The attacker often disguises it in an email pretending to be from someone the victim knows.
Once the computer is infected, the attacker has complete control and can turn it on or off remotely from anywhere in the world.
It will scour the owner's hard drive for any personal and financial information before sending it back to a thief's database.