Crime chief under fire for saying private investigators can access bank accounts

Head of Serious Organised Crime Agency causes alarm with statement to MPs

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The Independent Online

The head of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) is facing questions about the accuracy of statements he made to Parliament claiming it is possible for private investigators to lawfully obtain details of peoples’ bank accounts.

Senior sources at the Information Commissioner are said to be amazed at the comments made by Trevor Pearce, the agency’s director-general, to MPs earlier this month.

In a letter to the Home Affairs Select Committee, the senior law enforcement official said there were “limited circumstances” where a private investigator could apply to “data controllers” such as banks for sensitive information on members of the public.

It is thought that Mr Pearce may have been referring to third-party requests to institutions such as banks under Section 29 of the Data Protection Act.

But it is understood that no private detective seeking somebody’s bank statement has ever been successful using that device without obtaining prior consent from the data subject.

A senior source at the Office of the Information Commissioner, the Government regulator that enforces laws on data protection, told The Independent: “A snowball stands a better chance in hell than a PI does of getting information like that out of a bank. It’s nonsensical anyway. If you were investigating on behalf of someone else, why would they pay you a premium if they could just write to banks and ask for sensitive data?”

Keith Vaz MP, the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, said he was “astounded” by Mr Pearce’s statement, adding: “This may go some way to explaining why it appears that blue-chip firms who commission such activities have not been brought to justice.”

A Soca spokesman said: “Mr Pearce did not state, nor seek to imply, that large amounts of personal financial information is available systematically to PIs and stressed that scope for PIs to use the Data Protection Act exemptions is limited. However, law enforcement must consider that financial information which can be accessed by open-source researchers is available.”