Is anybody out there; listening?

The case of Alison Halford, the former policewoman whose phone was bugged during her sex discrimination battle with the force, shows how susceptible we all are to surveillance. Office workers beware...
Click to follow
The Independent Online
By Michael Streeter

Once upon a time there was the opportunity to relieve the pressure at work, a chance to escape the prying eye of the boss, by having a chat on the phone, with friends or family. No more, it would seem.

The case of Alison Halford - the former assistant chief constable of Merseyside who yesterday won a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that her privacy had been breached by the tapping of her office phone by superiors - will excite fears about bugging in offices up and down the land.

Formerly the exclusive preserve of Cold War spies and espionage fantasists, the bugging and recording of telephone calls can now be as common at work as swipe cards and tea and coffee vending machines. However, unlike the high-profile Halford case, most examples of bugging at work are never made public and not even revealed to the "victim".

Take the case of a Northern businessman, whom we shall call Mr X. Mr X was a senior manager for a large company, a powerful figure with his own office, whose work performance was judged to have declined. Colleagues suspected him of leaking confidential and highly valuable information to a rival firm, and called in a private detective agency to investigate.

Within days, his private office lines were being bugged and his conversations detailed, to reveal that indeed he was handing over computer disks to the competitor company. Mr X was duly confronted with photographs of his meeting, and a "redundancy" package was swiftly sorted out; but he was never told that his telephone line had been eavesdropped.

Mark Cox, franchise support manager of Abbey Investigations, which carried out the surveillance, says there were good reasons to keep the use of such technology from the staff. "The companies involved may well want to use the same method again, so it's better if staff are not told about it. It's about keeping the element of surprise."

The growth in the number of companies keeping tabs on their staff has taken even those in the surveillance business by surprise. Mr Cox, a former CID officer and traffic policeman, says his firm has noticed a huge change in business. "Our work used to be 90 per cent matrimonial work. In the last 12 months or so it has completely changed around, and we deal far more with business, sorting out commercial problems for clients. And much of this is keeping tabs on employees of all ranks."

The main concern for companies is staff either committing outright theft or fraud from their employers, or selling information to rivals - a practice not unheard of at some levels of newspapers - and increasingly the poaching of key personnel.

After the case of Nicola Horlick, the pounds 1m-a-year asset manager at Morgan Grenfell who was suspended for allegedly planning to move herself and key staff to a rival, it was revealed just how paranoid City firms have become about the loss of their workers. One private detective, with knowledge of the City, says: "The City is becoming increasingly worried about sudden defections and so it's not unusual for selected staff to be bugged if there's the slightest suspicion that a move might be in the offing."

Normally a firm will call in an outside private agency, for their expertise but also to ensure that as few people as possible inside the firm know what is going on. Usually, apart from senior management, only the head of security or the loss and risk manager at a firm will be made aware of the operation.

"Normally you would go in after everyone has left just to see what the situation is," says Mark Cox. "Sometimes you don't need to bug the phones. There are room bugs which can be used to pick up the general conversation in a room, which is particularly useful in cases of racial or sexual discrimination, for example."

These room bugs, which can cost pounds 100 or less, can transmit to a receiver up to two miles away. Otherwise, it will be a simple matter of attaching a bug to an employee's phone line, probably near the switchboard.

"Really, it's quite frightening how easy it is to set up these things. There is absolutely no way that you will know that your phone is being bugged - there is no noise at all. BT lines can be tapped anywhere between the exchange and the phone itself."

The current explosion of interest in surveillance was neatly underlined yesterday when the retailer Spymaster opened a new shop off Park Lane in central London, selling a vast array of detection material. Its director, Jeremy Marks, pointed to a new area of interest. "The biggest growth seems to be in counter-surveillance, from companies worried that they are being spied on."

The exotic equipment on sale in the shop includes a CSS Telephone Socket, which boasts it can "monitor any calls conducted from telephones plugged into this socket ... range: 700 metres." Another is a CSS PRO UHF Telephone Transmitter/Recorder, which gives "up to six hours of automatic recording of telephone conversations from up to 300 metres away."

Away from this seductive hardware of surveillance, the Halford case has focused attention on the legality of such actions by employers. As most cases are kept quiet, the issue is rarely tested, but the civil rights group Liberty believes that a right of privacy is needed to protect employees' rights as the practice becomes more widespread. Currently there is nothing stopping employers recording information at will.

John Wadham, Liberty director, accepts that firms have a legitimate right to keep tabs on staff they genuinely suspect of fraud or other wrongdoings, but says these should be the exceptions, not the rule. "It is important now that we can ensure that there is a right to privacy for all employees - and not just on the telephone. We hope the Government will take a broad view on this."

Mr Wadham would like to see a system analogous to the one used for police tapping of suspected criminals' phones. Currently this has to be approved by the Home Secretary - though Liberty would prefer a judge - and Mr Wadham thinks companies should have to justify why they need to carry out the surveillance. Staff should also have the right to be told if tapping has been carried out, he believes, and any information that is stored should be kept for the shortest possible period and restricted to minimal access to preserve individual's rights.

Another form of telephonic surveillance is growing: the ability of mobile phone firms to pinpoint - sometimes to within a few hundred yards - where a caller is when he or she dials a number. The mobile phone was once dubbed the villain's friend because of its supposed untraceability; now mobile phone records are being used more and more by counsel for the prosecution in criminal trials to prove not just whom a person called, but from where.

The burgeoning interest in surveillance and the lucrative business it can provide has inevitably attracted the attention of some cowboy operators, often one-person bands. Mark Cox says all his franchisees are urged to pass on surveillance calls for central vetting by the firm, to ensure that their services not being used improperly: for example, companies using the service to spy on rival outfits.

He says they are also careful not to interfere with BT equipment - a criminal offence - but he accepts there are problems that need addressing in the industry. "This is a growing area. And it is obviously open to abuse from unscrupulous individuals"n

Comments