Data theft conviction carries stiffest sentence yet

A UK man has been sentenced to 18 months of community service for pretexting, the same activity for which US computer firm Hewlett Packard has just paid out $16.5 million in a settlement with the Californian Attorney General.

Anthony Gerald Clifford, from Chessington in Surrey, has been convicted of unlawfully obtaining personal information by Kingston-upon-Thames Magistrates' Court. He has been ordered to pay £2,000 towards the cost of prosecution.

Clifford ran a private investigations agency called MRS through which he obtained and sold on information about individuals. As well as making calls himself, Clifford also used a woman employee in order to obtain women's information, and that person has now been cautioned over her role in the case.

Clifford used social engineering to gain the information, which meant that he phoned up organisations such as banks and phone companies pretending to be someone else to get a person's personal information.

Also known as blagging or as pretexting, the technique is simple and unusually effective. In the case of HP it was used by investigators to retrieve the personal phone records of board members and journalists without their permission.

HP chairwoman Patricia Dunn resigned over the affair and the firm has just agreed to pay a $16.5m settlement to the Californian Attorney General's office. It still faces criminal charges.

Clifford is the latest person to face court action over information theft. Last month News of the World journalist Clive Goodman and footballer turned investigator Glenn Mulcaire pleaded guilty to plotting to intercept personal information.

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said that the sentence in Clifford's case was more severe than usual, which it welcomed.

"This is the first time a court has imposed a community sentence for offences of this type," said Philip Taylor, a solicitor at the ICO. "The fact that the court has decided to impose a community sentence rather than a small fine sends out a very clear signal about the importance of these offences. The bench highlighted the offences were systematic and planned, causing harm to the victims.”

The Information Commissioner has made it clear that he wants to see more severe penalties for people trading in improperly obtained information. "More than 300 journalists are implicated in this illegal activity," said a spokesman for the ICO recently. "We have given them a clear warning that we will not hesitate to take action if they are suspected in future of committing offences."