The Home Secretary yesterday confirmed plans to regulate private investigators, including a new penalty for working as an unlicensed private investigator or supplying unlicensed investigators of a fine of up to £5,000 and up to six months in prison.
In our report earlier this year, we warned that private investigators were potentially being used to circumvent surveillance law by public authorities, and also identified their work as being a major threat to privacy where the information could be used in court if it had been obtained by improper means. We are pleased the Home Office has agreed with our recommendation to regulate private investigators.
We also highlighted in our evidence to the Leveson inquiry how journalists were not the only people using private investigators and that the wider issue was essential to address. As recent revelations about SOCA show, this is a very real problem and potentially involves a much greater scale of illegal activity than seen in the media.
While the Data Protection Act does offer legal protections, at present you cannot be sent to prison for breaching Section 55. We believe that this change will improve privacy protections, particularly as it broadens out the range of activities that might have been difficult to prosecute under the DPA. It is also important that those hiring a PI will be held liable if they are not properly licensed.
There is much more work to be done to ensure that people’s privacy and confidential information is protected from untoward surveillance and intrusion, including more rigorous enforcement of the Data Protection Act and custodial sentences. Regulating private investigators is an important part of this process.
Going forward, we hope that the consideration of whether evidence is admitted in court takes into account whether the regulatory framework has been complied with, particularly where those involved are aware that they are acting without a license.