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27 January 2011

Police and Ripa requests

Are there questions to be answered?

By David Allen Green

One of the interesting questions raised by the developing scandal into the use of phone-tapping by tabloid reporters and private investigators is: how did they get the telephone numbers and other data, such as PIN codes?

The usual explanation is that there were “blagging” exercises: someone would call the telephone company a number of times and would gradually eek the relevant details out by deception. This may well be true, though it would be time-consuming and possibly unsuccessful.

There are other ways, which are quicker.

For example, there may have been individuals at the telephone companies happy to provide such information.

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But the police themselves have extraordinarily wide powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to demand any and all data from telephone companies in respect of an account or an individual: hundreds of these “Ripa notices” are issued every day, usually on standard forms, with all the data then provided by return.

There is currently no evidence that the police wrongly used their Ripa request powers to pass on (or even sell) information to reporters and private investigators. So I am not making any suggestion of wrongdoing, and my suppositions here may well be wrong.

All that I am suggesting is that there was another – quicker and far more effective – way for the reporters and the investigators to obtain information, instead of blagging. And this alternative means is also consistent with the known facts and could perhaps explain the reluctance of the police to progress their investigations.

As it would clearly be in the public interest to put the matter beyond all doubt, I have submitted two Freedom of Information requests on this to the Metropolitan Police.

Let’s see what happens.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman. He is also a practising telecoms and media lawyer.