Boom in private investigators risks avoiding surveillance regulation

photographerOur latest report highlights the growing use of private investigators by local and public authorities, particularly the number of times they are used without RIPA authorisation.

The law in the UK, particularly the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, is broadly drawn to allow evidence to be introduced in court that in other jurisdictions would not be deemed admissible. Contrasted with the fruit of the poisonous tree provisions in the US, and broader protection offered by the Fourth Amendment, UK law risks failing to join up the evidential admissibility process and the regulation of surveillance.

While the surveillance doesn’t come cheap, with some organisation spending thousands of pounds on a single operation, the primary finding of the report is the potential loophole in surveillance regulation that is being exploited following the passage of the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012.

Accordingly, we are seriously concerned there is a gap in UK law emerging around surveillance and the ability of third parties to conduct surveillance operations without proper regulation. Some of these operations were conducted at the request of insurers, raising concerns about conflicts of interest.

The government has acted to control surveillance by local councils but this research shows more than ever before public bodies are using private detectives to do their snooping. The law is at breaking point and public bodies shouldn’t be able to dodge the legal checks on them by using private investigators.

Commenting on our report, Secretary of State for Local Government, Eric Pickles (no relation!) said “Such powers can only be used for serious crimes, and require a magistrates’ warrant. It is totally unacceptable if councils are trying to sidestep these important new checks and they should be held to account for acting outside the law.”

With as many as 10,000 people working as private investigators in the UK, we agree with the Home Affairs Select Committee that the current legal framework for regulating their activities is wholly inadequate.

This highlights the ongoing concern that RIPA is not fit for purpose, in failing to deal with evidence and material obtained outside the legislative framework. Equally, the changing nature of surveillance – particularly the ability to search online, through social networks and through semi-public sources of information – further reinforces the need for the law to be reformed to strengthen protection against unwarranted and unauthorised surveillance becoming a frequent occurrence.

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Deputy Director Emma Carr appeared on Sky News sunrise discussing the report, with BBC News, Metro, The Daily Telegraph, ITV News, BBC Radio 5 Live, Politics.co.uk, LocalGov and numerous regional media including the York Press, Huddersfield Examiner and the Sunderland Echo reporting our findings.