“Who Watches The Watchers?” The UK’s Private Detectives Under Investigation:

“Britain is the land of opportunity”. So declared Prime Minister David Cameron in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester on October 2nd. To justify this assertion, he claimed that “300,00 new businesses have opened up in the country” since the Coalition Government took power after the General Election on May 6th 2010. One of the sectors he could have mentioned (but didn’t) was the booming private investigation industry.

A House of Commons committee report published in July has indicated that, although only “2,032 private investigators are registered as data controllers with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)”, there are probably at least 10,000 people working as “private eyes” in the UK. As the “Daily Telegraph” journalist Jake Wallis Simons has pointed out (quoting Nigel Parsons, founder of the “Answers Investigations” agency), this activity is “Completely unregulated. Anyone can establish themselves as a detective. No licence is needed and no inspections are made”. A Channel 4 News programme has also contended that the “combined membership of the two main trade organisations, the “Association of British Investigators” (ABI) and the “World Association of Private Investigators” is a mere 1,000. Although they both have a Code of Conduct, there is no obligation to join either of them, thus they in reality “have no teeth”.

Neil Sheppard, a regional director of the “Allied Detectives” agency, told Channel 4 News that “Anyone can wake up, go to Argos, buy a camera and call themselves a private investigator (PI)”. His organisation charges an “hourly fee plus expenses”, but for “illegal operations, which we don’t do, you’re looking at thousands of pounds”. The rate with “Answers Investigation “ is £54 per hour for surveillance, £65 per hour for “computer forensics” and up to £95 per hour for “specialisms” such as “complex forensic analysis” and fingerprinting. Due to the cuts in police funding, “Answers Investigations” are “doing very well” and have thus been able to open  new branches in Hertfordshire and Sussex, in addition to the existing one in Berkshire.

The “Crown Intelligence” private investigation service website acknowledges that the PI’s public image is of a “sly and shifty character hiding in doorways with a camera trying to spy on someone’s (possibly errant) partner”  – and indeed that nearly 50% of divorce cases involve the use of a PI. It insists, however, that the PI role is neither “seedy nor glamorous”, that carrying out surveillance for several days or sitting behind a desk compiling legal information for a court case can be extremely tedious, and that a PI can often find themselves in quite dangerous situations – for example, when gathering evidence on theft, fraud and counterfeit or stolen goods. A professional PI (they state) “ will usually have a background within the police” – which correlates closely with House of Commons statistics showing that “about 65% of PI’s are former police officers”.

It would seem, however, that not all PI’s observe the scrupulous ethical standards identified with fictional sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes – hence the announcement by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, on 31st July that licensing for PI’s will be introduced by the end of 2014. This means, commented Andrew Grice in “The Independent”, that “Investigators found guilty of hacking or impersonation to obtain private information will be banned from holding a licence”. Applicants will “have to go on a training course and prove to the Security Industry Authority (SIA) that they understand the laws on privacy, bribery and data protection.” They will also be “vetted to see if they have a criminal record”. It is anticipated that “journalists working on legitimate projects in the public interest” will be exempted under the new legislation.

According to the ICO, up to 60% of its “enforcement duties” entails dealing with PI’s who commit serious breaches of the Data Protection Act. Such offences, the BBC correspondent Tom Symonds has noted, do not currently incur a custodial sentence: “Much more likely is a civil penalty – up to a £500,000 fine”. Other “scams” include “blagging” (covertly obtaining) bank account details, phone numbers & itemised bills, medical history, tax and payroll information and “planting an e-Blaster ‘Trojan’ tracking system on a target’s computer”.

So exactly who employs these “ rogue investigators”?  “The Independent” maintains that the “Serious Organised Crime Agency” (SOCA) has known for some time which institutions have been “hiring PI’s to break the law to further their commercial interests” – but have done “next to nothing to disrupt this unlawful trade”. SOCA – sometimes described as “Britain’s FBI” – was created in 2009 but will soon be replaced by the “National Crime Agency” (NCA). As part of its “Operation Millipede”, it has compiled a list of 102 organisations & individuals suspected of having used rogue PI’s – which it has passed on to both the ICO and the House of Commons committee chaired by the Labour MP Keith Vaz.

The Independent, Channel 4 News and the NUJ (National Union of Journalists) have together revealed that among those on the SOCA list are major banks, pharmaceutical, oil, rail, security, insurance and debt collection companies, celebrities, management consultancies and even 22 law firms.

A battle has developed between Keith Vaz – who believes this list should be made public – and SOCA / ICO who want it to remain confidential so as “not to prejudice further criminal enquiries. In the latest edition of “The Journalist” magazine, the NUJ has angrily denounced SOCA for “protecting the big corporations” – which (they say) “contrasts starkly” with the treatment meted out to the many journalists accused of hacking who “lived through hell” before being cleared of any guilt.





Filed under: Media, Society | Posted on October 7th, 2013 by Colin D Gordon

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