08 July 2012

UK Private Investigators

More fallout from the News of the World hacking scandal, with release by the UK House of Commons Home Affairs Committee of a report on private investigators.

The report considers the risks of private investigator involvement in the justice system and law enforcement, in particular the threat of corruption associated with that involvement (eg private investigators and police sharing the same bed).

The Committee concludes that "it is getting easier for anyone to advertise themselves as a private investigator - with modern communications and cheap surveillance devices - and while the industry remains unregulated, a number of serious risks remain". It recognises the honest contribution made by most private investigators but highlights the involvement of some private investigators in an illegal market in personal data and calls again on the Government to strength the penalties for data offences. The Committee Chair commented that
rogue private investigators are the brokers in a black market in information. They illegally snoop on our data, cash in on our private lives and only get away with a paltry fine. 
The public must be assured that those acting as ‘private investigators’ are subject to stringent checks, act under a code of conduct, and will face tough penalties if they step out of line.
It is also time for the link between private investigators and our police forces to be broken. Officers must be compelled to declare any dealings with private investigators and be subject to a cooling off period before they can move from the police service to the private investigation industry. 
It is time this industry was regulated, so that the honest majority can get on with their work. We expect the Government to act urgently.
Accordingly the report features a range of recommendations -
  • the Government should set up a robust licensing and registration system as soon as possible. 
  • private investigators and their companies should be governed by a new Code of Conduct for Private Investigators. Under this system a criminal record for breach of section 55 should disqualify individual from operating as private investigators. 
  • dealings between police and investigators should be recorded and that there should be a one year cooling off period between serving as a police officer and entering the investigation industry 
  • the Independent Police Complaints Commission should take direct control over investigations in cases alleging police corruption in relation to private investigators.
The report notes that
  • In January 2012, some 2,032 registered data controllers claimed they were operating a business as a private investigator, but industry groups have claimed that as many as 10,000 people are working in the field. No one knows precisely how many private investigators there are in the UK. 
  • As many as 65% of private investigators are former police officers. 
  • Currently, anyone can undertake private investigative activity regardless of skills, experience or criminality as there is no direct regulation of private investigations. 
  • Unscrupulous private investigators are the dealers in an illegal market in personal information, including: bank account details; telephone history; tax information; previous convictions; medical history; and the results of covert surveillance. 
  • Fees charged by investigators are opaque and vary enormously, from a small day fee of £250 for small firms or sole operatives, to several thousands of pounds per day for senior investigators, or difficult tasks. 
  • Sophisticated surveillance equipment is readily available for sale on the Internet, sometimes for less than £100. 
It goes on to comment that -
We were very surprised that the Minister responsible for regulation of the private security industry had not even read the report of the Serious Organised Crime Agency on private investigators. The Government should set out a strategy for mitigating the risks posed by private investigators as soon as the Minister has read and reflected on the report. 
In order to garner "premium" information that commands the highest prices, we heard troubling allegations that private investigators maintain close links with contacts in public service roles, such as the police forces. These links appear to go beyond one-off contacts and therefore to constitute an unacknowledged, but deep-rooted intertwining of a private and unregulated industry with our police forces. The Independent Police Complaints Commission should take a direct control over investigations in cases alleging police corruption. 
Personal privacy would be better protected by closer working between the Information Commissioner, the Chief Surveillance Commissioner and the Interception of Communications Commissioner. We recommend that the Government aim, before the end of the next Parliament, to co-locate the three Commissioners in shared offices and introduce a statutory requirement for them to cooperate on cases where both the Data Protection Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act are relevant. In the longer term, consideration should be given to merging the three offices into a single Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner.  
Confiscation orders should be sought where a person is convicted of data and privacy offences and has sold the information for profit. 
We recommend that the Home Secretary exercise her power under section 77 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 to strengthen the penalties available for offences relating to the unlawful obtaining, disclosure and selling of personal data under section 55 of the Data Protection Act. The current fine - typically around £100 - is derisory. It is simply not an effective deterrent. ... 
"Private Investigator" should be a protected title - as in the case of "social worker"- so that nobody could use the term to describe themselves without being subject to regulation. 
We recommend the introduction of a two-tier system of licensing of private investigators and private investigation companies and registration of others undertaking investigative work. Full licensing should apply to individuals operating or employed as full-time investigators and to private investigation companies. Registration should apply to in-house investigation work carried out by employees of companies which are already subject to regulation, such as solicitors and insurance companies. Both should be governed by a new Code of Conduct for Private Investigators, which would also apply to sub-contracted and part-time investigators. A criminal record for breach of section 55 should disqualify individuals from operating as private investigators. 
Whereas licensing will impose an additional regulatory burden on the industry, it could also provide the new safeguards necessary to provide some potential benefits. We recommend that the Government analyse the risks and benefits of granting increased access to certain prescribed databases for licensed investigators, in order to facilitate the legitimate pursuit of investigation activities. For example, a licence may confer the right to access the on-line vehicle-keeper database in certain circumstances. It should consider how this would interact with the changes proposed to data protection laws by the European Commission. The United Kingdom has rightly moved to a situation of information management rather than merely looking at data protection. We also recognise that appropriate sharing of data can prevent crime and contribute significantly to other outcomes that are in the public interest. However, any new access should be carefully monitored.
We can look forward to the report of the Leveson inquiry, which will offer another dimension.