It will take another data scandal before tougher sentences are imposed for data misuse, according to the information commissioner.
Speaking at the Infosecurity Europe conference in London on Tuesday, information commissioner Richard Thomas used his platform to berate "certain sections of the media" for lobbying that has resulted in what he referred to as "watered-down" penalties for misusing personal data.
Thomas was referring to lobbying from major newspaper groups over clause 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, which he persuaded the government to include with a view to strengthening penalties for those who gain illegal access to data of private individuals.
At stake is the unlawful trade in personal information, which Thomas said goes largely unpunished. Newspaper editors have argued that the penalties called for by Thomas would see the end of investigative journalism in the UK.
"There is an unlawful trade in personal data on an individual from a data controller without the consent of the individual, and, although we do prosecute, we end up with pathetic sentences," said Thomas. "I called on the government some time ago to increase the penalty to a prison sentence. The government did listen and agreed to increase the penalty to a prison sentence in the Criminal Justice [and Immigration] Bill, but a last-minute, very intensive lobbying campaign... meant it got watered down. The result is that the prison sentence remains but will not be implemented straight away, which means we will need another scandal before it is implemented."
Clause 76 was intended to update the Data Protection Act 1998 to include jail sentences of up to two years for anyone convicted of unlawfully obtaining and misusing personal data. Such offences presently only carry a maximum penalty of an unlimited fine.