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.


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,, LocalGov and numerous regional media including the York Press, Huddersfield Examiner and the Sunderland Echo reporting our findings.


  1. Boom in private investigators risks avoiding surveillance regulation | Big Brother Watch | Nanopunk - The Science Behind the Fiction
    17th March 2013

    […] via Boom in private investigators risks avoiding surveillance regulation | Big Brother Watch. […]

  2. Jhon124
    17th March 2013

    great article

  3. Jim
    17th March 2013

    I am not sure the report means anything to be honest. Without knowing why the public body thought the surveillance did not require a RIPA authorisation I am not sure you can suggest, as you are doing, that something fishy is going on. There are many reasons why a RIPA authorisation may not be required – your own report gives examples – mobile CCTV does not require a RIPA authorisation if it is overt.

  4. Guest
    17th March 2013

    Um, isn’t there any regulation at all or some other law preventing them from recording thru house windows or any other such wanton privacy intrusion?

    being recorded on the street is one thing, but I would assume even the judges would have had better sense than to allow the recording of someone in a bedroom for example…

  5. Jim
    17th March 2013

    Councils are not allowed to do intrusive surveillance – which is looking through windows of a house. The Police are though.

    • Guest
      17th March 2013

      What about private investigators in general? are they allowed to trespass and snoop through someones window especially if its their rear window away from public view?

      Police I would imagine only have the authority to peek thru windows if its spelled out on the warrant otherwise they’d be trespassing too.

      • Jim
        17th March 2013

        I believe the Police can – with appropriate authorisation – pretty much do anything which includes putting listening devices into peoples homes – and of course they should be able to so they can deal with serious crimes.

        Anyone acting as an agent for a local authority (i.e a private investigator) will need to comply with RIPA if RIPA applies – so you cannot use a PI to bypass RIPA if you are a public body. There are some things you can do which do not require RIPA authorisations.

        I am not sure what controls there are on PI operating independently – not many I would imagine.

        I should clarify my other post – there is a difference between walking to someone’s windows and looking in to see if they are in and actually setting up a camera to record into their house.

        What you don’t want to do is making surveillance so difficult that public bodies avoid doing it – surveillance is not some nasty thing to be avoided – often it is needed to get evidence against people committing crimes. Some public bodies now have a policy of not doing any surveillance because of organisations like BBW – the only people that suffer are the residents because it means the Council has lost a valuable tool in investigating things like benefit cheats, fly tippers, trading standards and environmental heal offence.

        Trespassing is not a crime and not an area of law I am that familiar with but if there is a genuine reason to go onto someone’s land then I doubt trespassing would even be a consideration.

        If you don’t want councils using these sorts of powers then the simple answer is to take away their responsibility for enforcing the law – which won;t happen as councils probably enforce thousands of laws.

        • Guest
          17th March 2013

          believe the Police can – with appropriate authorisation – pretty much do anything which includes putting listening devices into peoples homes

          So this appropriate authorisation has replaced the need for warrants? I hope that the coalition do something about that as it is a massive oversight, for example what if the person giving authorisation was once a school friend etc I’d rather have faith in a judge that won’t attempt to game the system like in most other countries.

          • Jim
            17th March 2013

            As far as I understand – and I am not a Police Officer – the police authorise themselves but obviously the decision is made by a very senior officer – it probably goes past a few officers on the way up before it gets to the top.

            Before any RIPA is authorised you should in theory do vast amounts of paperwork which justifies why it is necessary and outlines the reasons and evidence – so the chances of a friend just authorising it on a whim are highly unlikely if the paperwork doesn’t support the decision.

            A balance needs to be struck between putting all these checks in place and creating a situation where it becomes too much hassle or expensive to bother investigating something because you need an authorisation. This is very much the case now in local authorities where a magistrates approval is needed. It has had the affect of reducing the number of applications but as I have said before – a reduction in applications probably means there are less crimes being looked into or investigated properly.

          • Alastair McGowan
            4th May 2013

            Your last point makes absolute sense. Watering down the authorisation process in order to chase less serious offences seems to be the core intention of RIPA, where magistrate’s warrant would be too much effort and where the Police would decline to investigate. But if a suspected crime is worthy of the ‘serious’ label it would be worthy of a warrant or police taking it up. RIPA was therefore never about serious crime, itself just a convenient term that capitalises on the public emotive currency and legitimate infringements of privacy around ‘serious organised crime and terrorism’

          • Alastair McGowan
            4th May 2013

            ‘Appropriate authorisation’ would have to be a warrant of judicial oversight since a police force cannot authorise itself

          • Anon
            15th January 2015

            – with appropriate authorisation – Would be in the form of a RIPA authorisation or warrant whichever you want to call it. Believe me, the hoops they have to jump through to get these authorisations are tremendous (rightly so) and have to be authorised at the highest of levels.

    • Rob
      12th June 2013

      Mind you, councils have been using private credit agencies to mine data on a routine basis as a way of trying to catch benefit fraudsters.

      They can access and monitor my bank, credit card, rent, and utility details. And many councils have abolished their yearly application reviews, so common sense dictates they must be checking up on claimants by more devious means.

      • Prickly
        31st January 2014

        I think you are listening to the DWP and Councils too much. You seem to believe the lies they put out to scare you. How would a council know which utility company you use? How would they know which credit cards you have and how much you spend on them? They cannot see how much you have in an account. The tax office knows how much interest you receive and the DWP pick up on this. But it does not tell them how much is in the account.

        Councils have abolished the annual application review because they work with the DWP.

  6. Seamus
    18th March 2013

    You have a tentative number for private investigators, but it would be a mistake to assume that all of them are willing to or capable of conducting surveillance. “Private investigator” covers a wide range of activities and does not necessarily include conducting surveillance, whether covert or overt.

  7. ISSTrainingLtd
    19th March 2013

    Your report is absolutely flawed and inaccurate!

    ANY Local authority HAS to obtain authority (in accordance with RIPA 2000) to use Private Investigators. The details of any PI instructed by an LA has to be included in the application process. The authorisng officer would be committing professional suicide not to do so.

    There is no way a local authority (or any public body) can use a PI in order to circumvent the system.

    Please show us evidence of a private investigator being used where RIPA Authority was NOT granted.

    Peter Jenkins
    Author of Surveillance Tradecraft
    PS. Check out our website blog – RIPA for Dummies

    • Big Brother Watch
      21st March 2013

      If you read the report you will see each example of where a PI has been used without RIPA authorisation – we specifically asked organisations about RIPA and non-RIPA authorised surveillance and we entirely agree that it would appear illegal to use a PI outside of RIPA – this is what the authorities themselves told us.

      So, rather than being “flawed and inaccurate” we believe we have exposed several cases where potentially illegal surveillance is being undertaken and have reported this to the relevant authorities.

    • Alastair McGowan
      4th May 2013

      I still fail to understand why it could ever be considered more appropriate to apply to use RIPA to investigate suspected serious crime privately rather than report it to the Police. How can an official avoid the charge of failure to report a suspected crime if they engage a private detective rather han report to the police?

    • kev shaw
      12th November 2013

      I’ve been surveilled by the local authority, classed as collateral, even though I was followed while I was alone in the hope that it would help the agents to locate my wife. She works for the council, I do not, but has been told RIPA is not applicable to employee surveillance.

      • kev shaw
        12th November 2013

        Oh, and followed by a PI company who charged the council £1000 per day for 3 days covert survaillance.

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  10. Gary D Chance
    29th March 2013

    The reality of surveillance abuse goes beyond comprehension and general public knowledge. I’ve been subjected to non-stop totally invasive surveillance abuse since mid-August 1998 24/7/365. All the while I’ve been searching for someone to tackle the regulatory environment like this. All those in the surveillance community should welcome this effort. Given the current state-of-the-art for Tempest based surveillance technology used against the human being and any electronic device these abusers will not only destroy targets but competition. Kudos for this effort. I hope it brings about meaningful changes. The current system has been completely circumvented in my direct experience.

  11. Erica Blair
    10th April 2013

    I see that some of the commentators on here have very cleverly got off the topic, re local government and council surveillance.

  12. Mickey Mixon
    24th April 2013

    There should be limits in surveillance to protect the right of privacy of people.

  13. Alastair McGowan
    4th May 2013

    There is glaring anomaly in RIPA in that it provides for the ‘investigation of serious crime’ yet constitutionally the only organisation that should be charged with this task is the Police. If an organisation suspects crime their responsibility is to report it to the Police who may then apply for a magistrate’s warrant in order to invade privacy rather than usurp the role of police and go on their own prosecutorial expedition. The use of RIPA is not only an affront to privacy but an interference and subversion of the role of police in enforcing the law. If i report a serious crime to my local council rather than the police i am technically guilty of failing to report a crime. RIPA is simply power in the wrong hands.

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  16. Paul
    30th August 2013

    Reference surveillance – is it right for someone to fraudulently claim £1000’s, but wrong for the insurance companies/employers to hire Private Investigators to check the claims are genuine?

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  19. Alpha 1
    14th June 2015

    This sort of surveillance is here to stay. Jim brings up some very valid points in his statement above.

  20. edmund magdziarek
    29th October 2015

    Shocking if LA’s are admitting to carrying out surveillance without RIPA. Whenever I have given evidence on behalf of a local authority the defending barrister always ensures any of my activities were covered by a RIPA authorisation.