Private investigators who trade in secret personal data could face prison terms of up to two years under plans announced today
Buying and selling names and addresses, car registrations, ex-directory telephone numbers and other private information is illegal under data protection laws.
But critics have warned current penalties, usually involving fines of of about £5,000, do little to deter professional data thieves who can earn up to £120,000 a month.
Information commissioner Christopher Graham said current penalties for breaches of the Data Protection Act were "pathetic" and warned investigators could simply write them off against expenses.
The Ministry of Justice proposals include a maximum two-year sentence for cases heard in the crown court, and up to a year for magistrates' court cases.
Justice Minister Michael Wills said more "robust" penalties were needed to tackle the growing problem of data misuse.
Newspaper editors and publishers have argued against prison terms, warning they could have a "chilling effect" on legitimate investigations.
As a result, ministers are also considering creating a defence that would allow journalists to breach the laws if they were acting in the public interest.
Mr Wills said: "The knowing and reckless misuse of personal data is a serious criminal offence.
"We have been monitoring this illegal trade closely with the help of the information commissioner and as there is a great deal of concern about the protection of personal data we think the time has now come to consider a more robust penalty.
"A prison term would act as a strong deterrent, ensuring that those who commit this serious criminal offence and seek to profit from the illegal trade in personal data are punished appropriately."
Earlier this year the man behind a secret blacklist of construction workers was fined £5,000.
Ian Kerr was paid by some of Britain's best known building firms to run a database of more than 3,000 construction workers containing details of their work history and trade union involvement.Reuse content