19 Jul 2013
July 19, 2013

SOCA, Lawyers, Hacking

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I wrote the post below a few days ago.  It’s being reported today (1 Aug) that the chair of SOCA has resigned owing to a conflict of interest.  It’s also emerged that he had another, insane really, conflict of interest – his wife works for a private investigations agency. He hadn’t thought that was a problem, apparently. The decision not to reveal the names of companies, I suggest below, reflected the likelihood that Sir Ian’s background suggested he wasn’t equipped to understand the public implications of such a decision. Well, if there was any doubt before, there isn’t now.  Surely the list will be published now in short order?

The Telegraph and Indy published a story today about how the chair of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has told the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Commitee that SOCA won’t be saying which blue-chip companies hired dodgy private investigators, because doing so could “substantially undermine the financial viability of major organisations by tainting them with public association with criminality”.

The letters to the Committee have been made public just as parliament has gone on summer recess – that doesn’t smack of especially good practice for a government agency.  More significantly, the decision sets up a clear distinction between the treatment by government agencies of media organisations, which have been pursued strenuously by the cops and have had their relationships with private investigators revealed extensively to the public, and other types of private entity.

It’s true that all types of private sector organisations hire intelligence-type companies for all sorts of legitimate reasons, and it would hardly be fair to expect all of that to be in the public domain. But there’s specific cause to be concerned here, I think, because it’s now fairly clear that some legal companies, full of mock-schlock about the links between the media and sometimes dodgy investigators, have at the same time been even larger clients of the very same investigators.

It seems strange that SOCA would chose to place different types of private sector entities in different moral/legal categories, to the extent of ‘classifying’ (odd term for SOCA to use, since it’s generally used to refer to a process which leads to one of several possible classifications, one of which is open release to the public) information specifically because a request has been made.

From the perspective of the Leveson Inquiry, it’s clear that public outrage, manufactured or otherwise, extends at least in part from a perception the media had gone far beyond the norms of other types of private sector entity. Knowledge that some lawyers who put that argument to the inquiry were themselves possibly engaged in exactly the same practice would surely affect not only public perception now, but the very legitimacy of the whole Leveson process.

I don’t think this decision can stand. Without personalising it too much, it was announced by a chair who comes from a particular type of Ministry of Defence culture and who seems to have little experience of having to maintain public confidence in a major, albeit very small and focussed, institution like SOCA.

I hope the Home Affairs Select Committee can persuade SOCA to change its position.  And that the sections of the media who have been quiet on the matter today realise tomorrow that there is a serious problem here.