The Motorman Files: guidance for readers

by Brian Cathcart and Evan Harris

Like all raw data, the Motorman Blue Book, published in a partially redacted form by Paul Staines on his Guido Fawkes blog, requires some introduction and explanation. If you consult it you might find the following guidance helpful.

The Blue Book is one of four in the Motorman set and lists transactions between the private investigator Steve Whittamore and mainly News International journalists. The others are Red (mainly Trinity Mirror Group), Green and Yellow (both mainly the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, with sister publications).

The ‘books’ are spreadsheets created under the auspices of investigators at the Information Commissioner’s Office after their 2003 raid on Whittamore’s operation. Whittamore did not use computers and so he had recorded the data – complete with many mistakes – in a set of old-fashioned bound ledgers.

The Blue Book, listing inquiries by journalists at the News of the World, the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times, contains about 1,000 out of a reported total of 17,500 entries and is the smallest of the set. Why this is we are not sure, but it could be that the News of the World and the Sun used other agents as well. We do know that the News of the World had its own private investigator under contract to do similar work: Glenn Mulcaire.

What do the books show? Reading a transaction from left to right you might find this:

– The row number,
– The name of the newspaper group (in this case each one labelled ‘Times, Sun. News of the World’ but really meaning News International),
– The name of the newspaper. This appears only to have been completed for the Sunday Times. We know that most of the rest are News of the World (a few are the Sun and even fewer the Times) and indeed that some labelled Sunday Times are in fact News of the World, with the result that the Sunday Times is misleadingly over-represented in this document,
the name of the commissioning journalist (with occasional errors of spelling),
the nature of the inquiry (these are given in a kind of shorthand; see below for the outline explanation).
– The name of the agent – subcontracted by Whittamore – used to get the information; these are specialists in certain techniques.
– The ‘subject’ or target, in other words, the individual whom the journalist is investigating (these often appear obscure , frequently because the named person is merely an associate of the true subject – an employee of a celebrity, for example),
– A series of redacted columns which would contain the private information about the subject.
The series of columns in the right edge of the spreadsheet does not seem particularly important and contains matter such as whether this is for a feature or a news story and page references to the original ledger.

The shorthand for the inquiries translates as follows:

Publicly available so not necessary unlawfully obtained, disclosed or procured:

Occ = Occupancy check – a search on who is living at an address, from for example the electoral register.
CCJ = County Court Judgement.
Dir = Details of company directors.
Company search = Details of companies.
Area = Search of an area for an individual or address. Could be from the electoral role.

Not publicly available so highly likely to have been unlawfully obtained, and also highly likely to have been unlawfully disclosed and procured (unless there is a successful public interest or other defence, see below for legal note):

Conv = The ‘conversion’ of a land line phone number into a name and/or address. This is not publicly available and requires a leak from the phone company.
Mob Conv = The ‘conversion’ of a mobile number into a name and billing address or vice versa. This is not publicly available and requires a leak from the phone company.
XD = Ex-directory number for a name and/or address. This is not publicly available and requires a leak from the phone company.
CRO = Criminal Record Check. This comes from the Police National Computer and can not be obtained legitimately.
Veh Reg = The ‘conversion’ of a vehicle registration number into a name and address. This can only be done through the Police National Computer or the DVLA computer and is not legitimate
F & F = Friends and Families numbers from the BT promotional scheme. This is not publicly available and involves a leak fro the phone company. (Note: despite the name, these lists can include business associates, doctors, lawyers, agents etc.)
t/p Billing enquiries = A type of blag and thus probably illicitly obtained.
HPI = this is rare and may be Hire Purchase Information, and is unlikely to be publicly available.

Legal Note

The legal context, as Staines points out in his blog, is that nothing in the Blue Book is proof of criminality by the named journalist or newspaper.

The law makes out three potential offences – that is, knowingly or recklessly, obtaining or disclosing personal data or procuring the disclosure to another of personal data (Data Protection Act section 55(1).)

The law allows some exemptions, notably in Section 55 2 of the Data Protection Act, which states that:

2) Subsection (1) does not apply to a person who shows:

(a) that the obtaining, disclosing or procuring—

(i)was necessary for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime, or
(ii)was required or authorised by or under any enactment, by any rule of law or by the order of a court,

(b)that he acted in the reasonable belief that he had in law the right to obtain or disclose the data or information or, as the case may be, to procure the disclosure of the information to the other person,

(c)that he acted in the reasonable belief that he would have had the consent of the data controller if the data controller had known of the obtaining, disclosing or procuring and the circumstances of it, or

(d)that in the particular circumstances the obtaining, disclosing or procuring was justified as being in the public interest.

Newspaper groups that figure in the Motorman files have argued:

(a) that their journalists did not “reasonably believe” that the data would be collected illegally. In his 2006 report What Price Privacy Now?, and since then the Information Commissioner has not accepted that national newspaper journalists over a period of years did not “reasonably believe” that many of their requests for personal information would involve breaches of data protection. Hacked Off and our legal advisers firmly share that view and we believe that so would a magistrate or jury.

b) their journalists had the section 2 (d) public interest defences in every case. This was not argued in the trial of Whiiitamore and readers will have to make up their minds as to whether they think a public interest (in the legal, rather than prurient, sense) justification can be made out in each case.

In resisting further scrutiny the newspaper groups have argued that these events took place a long time ago, that they no longer use Whittamore, that no journalist was ever prosecuted. And all of the newspaper groups have resisted any publication of the contents of the files.

Steve Whittamore and three associates were convicted in 2005 of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office, for offences involving the use of the Police National Computer and – controversially – were given conditional discharges. Other Data protection and misconduct in public office prosecutions collapsed, including the attempt to prosecute Whittamore for non-PNC offences.

This note is aimed at those who are seeking to understand the information now in the public domain. Republication of the data incurs a risk of liability under section 55 of the Data Protection Act, not least because of the names of victims are included without their consent, and this note is not to be seen as encouragement to republish the data in this form.

For more information about Hacked Off’s campaign for full disclosure of the Motorman files (redacted for the details of victims), read this and this. Find our statement on the Blue Book release here.

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Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

April 10, 2012 at 11:21 pm

Re: “republication of data”…is it ok to link to the blog (as in the case of “The Guardian” article)?

April 11, 2012 at 8:08 pm

Leave the guy alone

OM Personreply
April 14, 2012 at 5:41 pm

“The ‘books’ are spreadsheets created under the auspices of investigators at the Information Commissioner’s Office after their 2003 raid on Whittamore’s operation.” ~ Brian Cathcart and Evan Harris

This is misleading. Previously, Whittamore had bought four coloured A4 notebooks – blue, green, yellow and red – with a hundred pages in each, two sides to each page. Supposedly, Whittamore used these four A4 notebooks as ledgers to record longhand the details of each request for information from each one of his customers. Whittamore also hand wrote his invoices and receipts, his copies of which he kept in a large box. Note that his customers, the newspapers, must have had their own copies and presumably have them still unless the newspapers have destroyed them. An ICO five-person team seized all Whittamore’s material during their raid on Whittamore’s home on 8 March 2003 led by the ICO Senior Investigating Officer Alex Owens.

After the raid, Alex Owens, the lead investigator for the ICO in Operation Motorman, with the voluntary assistance of another ICO member of staff, ICO Investigator Roy Pollit, laboriously made photocopies of each side of every page of each of Whittamore’s four coloured A4 notebooks, and of every receipt and invoice in Whittamore’s box. Owens says in his witness statement to the Leveson Inquiry that the originals were carefully stored in the expectation of prosecutions later. Owens then gave a copy of everything (not the originals I think) to an outside data-entry firm that Owens had engaged for the task. That outside firm entered the information, which was in the photocopies of the pages of the four Whittamore A4 notebooks seized in the raid, into thirteen Excel spreadsheets. The purpose of doing this was to aid Owens, and his small team of ICO investigators, in Owens’ preliminary investigation of what appeared to be prima facie breaches of the Data Protection Act 1998.

It’s crucial to grasp here that the Operation Motorman material was and still is Whittamore’s original four A4 coloured notebooks plus all the invoices and the receipts in the large box seized by the ICO during the raid on Whittamore’s home. The thirteen Excel spreadsheets, compiled later at Owens’ behest to assist him in his investigation, convenient as they may appear to be to us for easy perusing, are a red sprat in so much as they distract our critical attention from the original Operation Motorman material seized from Whittamore by the ICO. Further, one should not forget that the thirteen Excel spreadsheets are not comprehensive records of all the materials seized. Much of the crucial information in the Operation Motorman material seized is in Whittamore’s receipts and invoices, and this is not part of the thirteen Excel spreadsheets.

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