2 The risks of unregulated investigation |
17. While private investigation remains unregulated,
there are serious risks that some private investigators will turn
to illegal methods to achieve their ends. For example, using false
cover stories to obtain access to confidential information"blagging"
or illegally paying
public officials for access. These operators are sometimes referred
to as "information brokers" in the industry.
A market in information
18. The growth in availability of information
creates two new risks. First, it is increasingly easy to access,
store and transfer large amounts of personal data. Second, ease
of access means that almost anyone with an Internet connection
can offer investigation-style services without any background
in the industry, skills or experience.
19. The Association of British Investigators
told the story of dilettante detectives who can sell their services
without any training. It said that instead of posting sub-contracted
instructions to a trusted fellow member, it was now "possible
to outsource work instantly to a worldwide network of individuals
purporting to be private investigators", who were "inexperienced,
part-time amateurs" and not notified under the Data Protection
Act. The Association
argued that this had damaged the integrity, quality, financial
probity and professionalism of the industry over the past 15-20
from the private investigation industry echoed these viewsG4S
said that "someone can be a butcher today and a private investigator
tomorrow without any proper checks".
20. The availability of other technologies had
also facilitated entry to the private investigation industry.
Gerry Hall of IPS International Ltd told us that the cost of surveillance
technologies had fallen over recent years, so that a sophisticated
transponder, which could be used for bugging, could be bought
on the Internet for a few pounds.
The Surveillance Group expressed "grave concerns" regarding
the illegal application of tracking and digital monitoring devices.
21. The Information Commissioner's Office had
received complaints about:
a) aggressive and inappropriate surveillance
techniques used by investigators working for insurance companies;
b) surveillance carried out in marital contexts,
e.g. one spouse using an investigator to spy on the other;
c) tracking devices found on vehicles; and
d) private investigation companies' failure to
give individuals access to information held about them, a requirement
of the Data Protection Act.
22. In this context, we heard that a thriving
market in personal data had developed. There was convincing evidence
that the "reputable face" of private investigation,
presented by a few major companies and trade associations, hides
a market that slips below the radar of law-enforcement. The structure
of the industry in the UK is pyramidal: Dan Morrison of Grosvenor
Law LLP told us that there were four or five large investigating
firms, then half a dozen medium-sized enterprises, followed by
"many thousands" of sole traders.
The larger firms were careful to avoid taking on work that might
compromise their corporate image, but the practice of sub-contracting
was widespread. Kroll told us that its contractor base was continuously
evolving as new contractors are added and others removed. When
it submitted evidence, Kroll had 478 contractors on its database,
including industry analysts, freelance journalists and business
consultants, alongside academics, lawyers and licensed security
consultants, translation agencies and expert providers such as
fingerprint and other forensic specialists.
23. Mr Morrison said that subcontracting left
the client "no way of controlling who is doing the work"
and that "the feeder end of the market is populated by people
who will basically leave no stone unturned, irrespective of the
legality, probity or ethical propriety of what they are doing".
This effect was clear in the case described by Julian Pike, of
Farrer & Co LLP, in which he advised the News of the World
to carry out surveillance. The News of the World instructed
former policeman Derek Webb to observe Charlotte Harris and Mark
24. G4S told us that the market was sustained
by demand from companies and individuals who request information
which is not readily or legally available but for which they are
prepared to pay large sums of money, often in cash.
The Association of Fraud Examiners also emphasised that illegal
activity would not take place unless there was demand for it and
went as far as to call private investigators the "man in
25. The actions of private investigator Steve
Whittamore are a case in point for the risks of an information-rich
and an information-hungry society. The Information Commission
told us that there were seventeen thousand lines of information
in the dossiers of the Motorman files compiled by Whittamore,
including 4,000 surnames.
These detailed a panoply of public employees illegally selling
personal information, which had been gleaned from Government databases.
26. Easy access to information
poses a double risk. Personal data is easier than ever to access
and a private profile of a person can be built from a desktop.
The ease of access has also opened the information market to new
and unscrupulous suppliers, who may not be registered with the
Information Commissioner and are unlikely to understand the rules
under which they ought to operate. Phone-hacking appears to be
the tip of the iceberg of a substantial black market in personal
information. This is facilitated by the easy availability of tracking
and digital monitoring devices at very little cost.
Involvement in the justice system
27. The close inter-marriage between the private
sector investigators and police forces is a boon for the sector,
but a significant risk. The report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate
of Constabulary, Without fear or favour, described the
threat of corruption of police officers posed by links with private
Serious Organised Crime Agency's 2008 report on private investigators
found that their interaction with police officers was an "increasing
threat to law enforcement".
It found that:
Criminal private investigators [...] use corrupt
employees in specialist areas such as law enforcement, local government,
the communications industry, utility service providers, banking
and other public and private sector areas where useful information
28. When we raised this issue with the Minister,
Lynne Featherstone MP, she told us that she had not seen the report,
although the Home Secretary and Ministers were made aware of it
in April 2012. It
is freely available on the SOCA website.
29. 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.
30. Speechly Bircham, a firm of solicitors, told
us that there was no way for a law firm to confirm a private investigator's
probity. This contrasted with the public disciplinary record maintained
by the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
31. We were presented with evidence that links
private investigators with serving police officers, in a case
that demonstrates the close involvement of investigators with
the justice system. GMB described evidence that "confidential
information from Police files has been leaked to the Consulting
Association [headed by a private investigator]", including
notes on people's presence at demonstrations and records of contacts
with the police.
Mike Schwarz, partner at Bindmans LLP, described "the unregulated,
unsupervised and invisible participation of private investigators
within the heart of the criminal justice process".
He shared evidence with us that suggested that a single private
investigation firm had served three clients involved in one case
as "surrogate solicitors" and passed legally privileged
information between the parties, including information from the
defence side to the police.
This was in breach of principles set out in the Solicitors Regulation
Authority Code, such as rules on conflicts of interest, which
are described as "critical public protection".
32. Mr Schwarz also made serious allegations
of police corruption. There was evidence which suggested that
a private investigation firm had obtained confidential information
about the police investigation.
He submitted documents which he said implied that about half a
dozen payments totalling about £20,000 were paid by private
investigators over a period of eight or nine months to confidential
sources, possibly serving police officers.
According to Mr Schwarz, two of the key officers in the case were
still on duty on the same case and one has retired and even been
employed by the same private investigation firm.
The firm confirmed to us in subsequent correspondence that it
had engaged the officer for consultancy work for a total of six
33. He also suggested that the Independent Police
Complaints Commission did not appear to be conducting an effective
or speedy investigation into the allegations. It had decided simply
to supervise the investigation of the Metropolitan Police Service's
own anti-corruption unit, rather than take on the investigation
34. We contacted the private investigation firm
implicated [RISC Management Ltd], which strongly denied the suggestion
that any such payments were made.
Arrests of serving and former police offers were subsequently
made and the matter should certainly be taken with the utmost
35. 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.
23 Ev 65 [ABI] Back
Ev 65 [ABI] Back
Ev w2 [G4S]; Ev 64 [ABI] Back
Home Affairs Committee seminar on private investigators Back
Ev w8 [The Surveillance Group Ltd] Back
Ev 69 [ICO] Back
Q 433 [Dan Morrison] Back
Ev 80 [Kroll] Back
Q 433 [Dan Morrison] Back
Q 230 and Q 247 [Charlotte Harris] Back
Ev w2 [G4S] Back
Ev w21 [ACFE] Back
Q 8 [Christopher Graham] Back
HMIC, Without fear or favour: A review of police relationships,
December 2011 Back
Q 119 [Commander Spindler] Back
SOCA, Private Investigators: The Rogue Element of the Private
Investigation Industry and Others Unlawfully Trading in Personal
Data, January 2008 Back
Q 462 [Lynne Featherstone] Back
Ev w28 [Speechly Bircham] Back
Ev w25 [GMB] Back
Ev 88 [Mike Schwarz] Back
Q 411 [Mike Schwarz]; Q 412 [Mike Schwarz] Back
Ev 88 [Mike Schwarz] Back
Ev 88 [Mike Schwarz] Back
Q 418 [Mike Schwarz] Back
Q 433 Back
Ev 88 [Mike Schwarz] Back
Ev 88 [Mike Schwarz]; Ev 92 [RISC Management Ltd] Back