UK regulator to probe Sky News over email hacking

Summary:British news agency Sky News is to be investigated by the UK's communications regulator after it admitted to hacking into two email accounts to generate a story.

Ofcom, the UK's communications regulator, is to investigate Sky News after it admitted last month it hacked into the email accounts of two suspected criminals.

"Ofcom is investigating the fairness and privacy issues raised by Sky News' statement that it had accessed without prior authorisation private email accounts during the course of its news investigations," an Ofcom spokesperson said by email statement.

The regulator said it would make the outcome of the investigation known "in due course", in a process that can and often takes weeks or months.

Sky News defended its actions when it confirmed the email hacks as in the "public interest", but did "not take such decisions lightly of frequently".

"Canoe man" John Darwin, who faked his own death and was jailed for six years for deception, and a suspected paedophile were targeted by the British news agency, which News Corp. owns 39 percent of.

It comes after months of government inquiries into phone and email hacking, with two separate police investigations looking into police corruption and claims made by public figures.

News Corp.-owned newspaper News of the World shuttered late last year after the phone hacking scandal, pushed on by public pressure after the cellphone of murdered 13-year-old teenager Millie Dowler was illegally accessed by reporters' days after she went missing.

The newspaper's shutdown also led to British Sky Broadcasting, the owner of Sky News, also to be investigated by Ofcom as to whether it is "fit and proper" to hold a broadcasting license.

Sky News chief John Ryley, who described the email hacking as requiring "finely balanced judgement", stood by the reporter, Gerard Tubb, the northern England correspondent for the broadcaster.

Ryley is set to give evidence in the Leveson inquiry today, which investigates the UK media in the wake of the phone hacking scandal.

Under UK law, intercepting or illegally accessing email is illegal under the Computer Misuse Act, which can lead to a 10-year prison sentence for serious breaches.

Ofcom said it will investigate under 8.1 of the broadcasting code, which deals in privacy issues.

While in some cases breaking the law can be necessary to break important stories, a defence of "acting in the public interest" may not be valid in this case.

Having said that, the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal came to light after rival newspaper the Telgraph paid for stolen data in order to expose the exploitation of the Parliamentary expenses system by members of the House. The Guardian's David Leigh admitted he hacked into a phone in order to break a story, months after the initial phone hacking scandal emerged.

But these two cases are not covered by the Computer Misuse Act --- instead covered by the Data Protection Act, and the Communications Act respectively --- but could nevertheless result in a prosecution.

Related:

Topics: Security, Collaboration

About

Zack Whittaker writes for ZDNet, CNET, and CBS News. He is based in New York City.

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