So you want to be a private eye?

There are 10,000 private investigators operating in Britain. Rob Hastings uncovers some uncomfortable facts about the industry behind the hacking scandal
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The Independent Online

Whether any self-respecting private detective would be proud to proclaim holding the rather naff-sounding Edexcel BTec in Advanced Private Investigation Level-3 diploma – taught by the Academy of Professional Investigation in West Sussex – is debatable.

What is certain is this: not only is there no legal compulsion for private detectives to take any competence-based qualification, but a full decade after Parliament said this murky trade needed regulating, nothing has been done, which has serious repercussions.

Famous names keep being revealed as possible victims of phone hacking, but the general public may not be aware just how at risk they are from some of the estimated 10,000 private investigators (PIs) operating in Britain. Right now, dozens are openly offering to bug mobile phones, intercept emails and place secret tracking devices on cars. With apparently illegal surveillance techniques being brazenly advertised to the public over the internet, anyone could procure or be targeted by the same kind of tactics used by the News of the World's hacker Glenn Mulcaire.

As one agency ominously proclaims on its website: "Mobile phone bugging is no longer a thing of the movies."

Posing undercover as a potential client, I was told by Paul Turner of the agency that it could use Bluetooth technology to make most kinds of mobile phones secretly forward all incoming and outgoing text messages to a third party and allow calls to be listened to without their users finding out. He also offered to place equipment on a car, enabling its whereabouts to be followed by GPS and raising the frightening spectre of ordinary people being tracked with James Bond-style gadgets.

Ibrahim Hasan, a solicitor who specialises in surveillance law, said: "It is difficult to see how any of these services can be provided without serious privacy violations and criminal offences being committed."

Without any licensing system in place, there are no criminal checks needed to work as a private detective – meaning that the police have no power to stop one man known to be on the sex offenders' register, convicted of sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl and the rape of a 16-year-old, who is currently working as a PI under an alias. As well as exposing his targets and his customers to considerable potential harm, this case makes a sinister mockery of the lack of any regulation. In fact, there is nothing in law to prevent even Mulcaire – who allegedly hacked into the voicemail messages of crime victims and their families, and was jailed for six months in January 2007 for targeting the Royal Family – continuing to work as a PI under an assumed name.

What makes this all the more shocking is that it flies in the face of an official Home Office document which strongly recommended three years ago that licensing should be introduced. Revealing that one-quarter of all criminal cases handled by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) stemmed from PIs, it stated that the Serious Organised Crime Agency had evidence "of a level of risk associated with criminal activity which supports the need for licensing and proposals to reduce the harms inflicted on the UK by private investigators trading in unlawfully acquired data". The ICO itself also provided evidence of PIs causing harm to both their targets and their clients through "rogue activity and lack of competence".

It was back in 2001 that the Private Security Industry Act outlined that PIs should be regulated, only for the Security Industry Authority (SIA) – which was set up with the provision eventually to license PIs – not to be granted that power. Incredibly, the Coalition is now working to abolish the SIA and replace it with a new body, making it unlikely the UK will be in a position to license PIs for years to come.

While some reputable PIs underline the need to work within the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the Data Protection Act and the Computer Misuse Act, others – working for as little as £20 an hour – unscrupulously promote illegal activities as if these laws do not exist. Many of their services are aimed at a lucrative market of people suspicious that their partners are cheating on them, but their readiness to sell these services raises questions as to who else may be spied upon using the same techniques. It also leaves the way open for criminals to steal people's data to hire illegal services from PIs by pretending they simply want to expose adultery.

And what of the agencies themselves? All three found by i to be offering services that appear to be in breach of the law maintain that none of their activities is illegal, stating all their contracts include terms and conditions whereby clients promise to use their monitoring services on their own mobile phones, computers or cars before any product or service is sold to them. They also underline that they do not carry out the type of services that have come under the spotlight in the phone-hacking scandal.

However, Tony Imossi, president of the Association of British Investigators (ABI), says the PIs who provide unlawful hacking and bugging services were "criminals masquerading as professional investigators. All these services are illegal activities and we would 100 per cent condemn them.

"We would not tolerate it from any of our members and if any of those were linked to our members we would immediately put them through the disciplinary process with a view to expelling them."

The ABI however, has no jurisdiction over agents who choose not to become members.

All Mr Imossi can do is vet the ABI's voluntary members and keep his ear to the ground about others.

"If I see something that's outrageous and blatant, I will tip off the authorities and say there is something not right going on here," Mr Imossi says.

"Something needs to happen," he adds. "It's been the policy of my organisation to support regulation and we've been strung on that for the past 10 years and we've done everything we possibly could to help."