The act of intercepting someone’s telephone calls is a criminal, rather than a civil, offence and it is punishable by a either fine or up to two years’ imprisonment or both. Phone hacking also involves civil causes of action, which allows its victims to sue for damages.
However, greater clarity surrounding the law governing phone hacking has been called for recently in light of an unprecedented phone-hacking scandal. News International, owner of the Sunday newspaper News of the World, has been in the spotlight following the interception of voicemail messages of celebrities and other public figures by journalists and a private detective working for the newspaper.
What does the law say?
Under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the unauthorised interception of communications covers fixed and mobile telephone lines, emails, texts and pager messages. A person ‘intercepts’ a communication by making some or all of the content of the communication available, while being transmitted, to a person other than the sender or intended recipient of the communication.
The first major conviction under this act for phone hacking came in 2006 when two journalists were given prison sentences following the alleged surveillance of several members of the Royal Family.
Although the police have apparently previously taken the view that this legislation does not cover the hacking of voicemail messages unless they have not yet been listened to by the intended recipient, prosecutors now argue that it is an offence to hack into voicemail messages, irrespective of whether they have been listened to.
Unlike many similar offences and civil claims, there is no public interest defence for anyone caught breaking the act for phone hacking and there is no provision for anyone outside the police and security services to obtain the authority to intercept calls or messages.
Issues surrounding the law governing phone hacking
Contrary to the law governing phone hacking, the Data Protection Act 1998 makes it an offence to gain unauthorised access to information held on confidential databases, telephone accounts and bank records, punishable by a fine (rather than imprisonment) and with the availability of a public interest defence to persons in breach of the act.
It has been argued that the legislation surrounding phone hacking is now outdated and does not provide a contemporary solution to contemporary problems that it is now dealing with. There is also concern about both the scope and understanding of current laws on phone hacking, with prosecutors and police still arguing over the meaning of relevant sections of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
Recent scandal and implications
The recent case involving News of the World has led to questions about how widespread phone hacking really is in the British press and some clarity in the law has been called for in order to ensure that systematic and institutional invasions of privacy will no longer be tolerated.
Although freedom of expression and investigative journalism must remain an important part of our society, it is possible that stricter regulations and guidelines may be put in place in light of recent revelations.