LONDON — With Britain still coming to terms with the illegal voice mail interception at one of its biggest newspapers, Scotland Yard was asked Thursday to look into an even more intrusive technique: "pinging."
A member of the board that oversees London's police force has asked it to investigate claims that News of the World reporters paid officers to obtain people's locations by tracking their cellphone signals — a practice known as "pinging" because of how cell phones signals bounce or "ping" off relay towers as they try to find reception.
Jenny Jones, a Green Party member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, cited claims that reporters at the now-defunct tabloid were able to trace mobile phones in return for payments to corrupt police officers.
The allegation was made by the late Sean Hoare, a former News of the World reporter who spoke to the New York Times about skullduggery at the tabloid. Hoare — who was fired in 2005 — said that officers were paid 300 pounds (nearly $500) per trace. The paper cited a second unnamed former News of the World journalist as corroborating Hoare's claim.
Hoare was found dead on Monday at his home near London; police say the death is not suspicious.
Jones is asking Scotland Yard to examine the records of all cases in which police accessed phone-tracking data "to ensure those were valid requests."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Jones said that going through the cell phone tracing requests "is a relatively simple way of finding corrupt officers" given that it would be clear who was being targeted and when.
"The information is there and you can check," she said.
Pinging joins a host of alleged media misdeeds being put under the microscope as police, politicians, and the public weigh allegations that journalists at Rupert Murdoch's News of the World engaged in years of lawless behavior to get scoops.
What began in 2005 as a slow-burning scandal over one reporter's efforts to spy on voicemails left on the phones of Britain's royal household has exploded into a crisis which has shaken Murdoch's media empire and led to resignations of two of Scotland Yard's most senior officers.
British politicians have felt the heat too, with the country's top two party leaders falling over each other to distance themselves from papers they once both courted assiduously.
Prime Minister David Cameron's former communications director — a veteran of the Murdoch press — came under fresh scrutiny Thursday after it was reported that he did not have a top-level security clearance, which spared him from the most stringent type of vetting.
The Guardian said that Andy Coulson, a former editor of the News of the World, would have been vetted when he went to work for Cameron once he became prime minister last year. The fact that he didn't have a top-level clearance "will fuel suggestions that Cameron failed to take proper steps to check allegations that Coulson had been involved in illegal behavior," the paper said.
The Cabinet Office, which oversees the civil service, said all employees in the prime minister's office have at least the second-highest level of clearance. They would be subject to a check of company records, credit and MI5 records. An interview can be required if any security concerns are unresolved.
A spokeswoman at Cameron's office said the level of vetting depended on whether someone had access to top secret material. She declined to comment on why Coulson didn't have that level of clearance.
"We don't comment on individual vetting," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.
Cameron was asked several times about the issue in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
"He had a basic level of vetting," Cameron said. "He was not able to see the most secret documents in the government."
When the question was raised again, Cameron said, "I feel that a number of honorable members are looking for some sort of secret behind a curtain that simply is not there."
Helen Goodman, one of the opposition Labour Party members, said "one can but speculate" why Coulson would not have been subjected to the highest level of vetting.
"Your guess about the prime minister's motives is as good as mine, but I certainly haven't had clear answers from him so far," Goodman said.
Although the issue had been covered off-and-on over the years, almost exclusively by the Guardian, allegations of illegal behavior at the News of the World received feverish attention after July 4, when it was alleged that someone there had hacked the phone of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler at a time when police were still searching for her.
The temperature cooled a bit on Thursday, with Parliament closed for the first day of its summer recess, but the investigation appeared to be intensifying.
London's Metropolitan Police said Wednesday that it was assigning 15 more officers to help the 45 already involved in the investigation.
News Corp., meanwhile, said it had instructed the law firm of Harbottle and Lewis to answer police questions about emails and other documents from an internal investigation at News of the World in 2007. That inquiry said found no evidence that Coulson was aware of hacking by reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire. Both were sentenced to prison for hacking into phones of the royal household.
Harbottle and Lewis had said there was no evidence of wider criminality at the newspaper.
The file of emails and document was turned over to police in June.
Ken MacDonald, the former director of public prosecutions, reviewed emails from that file which related to payments to police. He had been hired to advise the News Corp. board.
On Tuesday, MacDonald told a parliamentary committee that it took no more than five minutes to read the material. "I cannot imagine anyone looking at that file and not seeing evidence of crime on its face," MacDonald said.
Since the Milly Dowler hacking was reported, London's police chief and the head of its antiterrorist operations have resigned; so have Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, which runs Murdoch's British papers, and Les Hinton, a longtime associate of Murdoch who formerly headed News International. The News of the World was shut down, leaving 200 employees looking for work, and the BSkyB bid was shelved.
Shutting News of the World apparently will cost Rupert Murdoch's surviving British newspapers their exclusive access to British athletes ahead of the 2012 London Olympics.
Team 2012, an initiative supporting British Olympians, had signed up News International as its official partner to help raise funds for athletes. But without the News of the World, Team 2012 said News International can no longer meet its contractual obligations, and it is looking for new media partners.
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