Eyes on the spies: The murky world of the private investigators

There are 10,000 private investigators operating in Britain - with no licensing, it’s no wonder that many use illegal techniques. Rob Hastings uncovers uncomfortable facts about the industry behind the hacking scandal

Rob Hastings
Friday 15 July 2011 00:00 BST

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, still nothing has been done. And that 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 operating in Britain. Right now, dozens of private investigators 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. Mobile phone bugging is now a reality."

Posing undercover as a potential client, I was told by Paul Turner of the agency wetrackanycar.com 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 phone calls to be listened to without their users finding out. He also offered to place equipment on a car covertly, enabling its whereabouts to be followed remotely through a computer system using 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 such offerings potentially "involve a number of offences under the civil and criminal law being committed" that are punishable by prison sentences. "It is difficult to see how any of these services can be provided without serious privacy violations and criminal offences being committed," he says.

Not only that, but without any licensing system in place there are no Criminal Records Bureau 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 girl, 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 Government's long-standing failure to introduce 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 solicit 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 concluded that licensing should come into force in April 2009. But with the Home Office blaming the log jam of legislation the Labour government tried to rush through before the May 2010 election, that simply never happened.

Even that paper had been a long time coming, however. It was back in 2001 that the Private Security Industry Act outlined that private investigators 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 an entirely 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 and people with more serious and harmful desires 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 The Independent 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 absolutely 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 has been calling for the trade it represents to be regulated for years, and has done its best to oversee the business itself in the absence of any legislation. But while it has been recognised by the Law Society for offering a reliable stamp of respectability to the many law-abiding PIs, the ABI has no jurisdiction over agents who choose not to become members. And warned by another body, the World Association of Private Investigators, only 5 per cent of all PIs in the UK are affiliated to any of the trade's varied clubs. That means that 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." This is of little comfort to the rest of us – whether it's the high-profile names waiting for a letter from the Metropolitan Police or the ordinary public who have no reason to believe their lives are worthy of surveillance.

DIY private eyes

Redweb RX8 Standalone Asset Tracker, £665.50, www.securonic.co.uk

This little black box makes the cop-chase exclamation "follow that car!" redundant. The Redweb RX8 is slipped into a vehicle and can then be tracked simply on Google maps. The online seller says: "Police use this device in covert applications."

GSM Computer Mouse, £150, www.spyshop.co.uk

Another Trojan horse-style listening device, this mouse, once activated, transmits conversations taking place up to 15ft around it. It has a concealed SIM card that is dialled up to access audio. It is described as being "ideal for long-term surveillance" and boasts a long-life battery.

Pen recorder, £130.80, www.spyequipmentuk.co.uk

Surveillance is endlessly imaginative. From the mouse that squeals (below), to calculators and travel clocks, the most innocuous equipment is ideal as cover. But the appeal of the pen recorder, a working pen as well as a bug, is that it can be used while the investigator is in situ or quietly planted.

Enigma spy phone, £120, www.spyshop.co.uk

This handset doubles as a listening device. It appears to be dead, but once it has been recovered, can be used as normal phone. Investigators using it might need a cover story as to why they have such an outmoded phone, though. A more hi-tech option is to pre-load a target's phone with tracking software.

LM Technologies USB KeySafe Pro, £28.28, www.dataservesolutions.co.uk

Billed as a way for concerned parents to keep tabs on their offspring online, USB keystroke loggers can also be used to track the computer use (think emails, searches etc) of straying partners or embezzling employees. This version requires no software, but myriad software-only trackers are available from sites such as www.key-stroke.com.

The secret's out: What three agencies offer


Paul Turner from wetrackanycar.com explained how easily a partner's phone could be bugged to a reporter posing as a suspicious boyfriend: "With the phone-bugging side of it, it all depends what sort of phone system she's got," said Paul. "If she's got a BlackBerry or an iPhone, they're impossible to do because there's so many security settings on there."

Adding, however, that most other phones are hackable, he said that the spying system is loaded through a Bluetooth connection, meaning that the mobile need not even leave the target's hands to be corrupted.

"When she sends a text message, it'll send a copy of the text. When she receives a text, it'll send you a copy. When she's on the phone, it will tell you she's on the phone, you can dial in a Pin number and listen in to the conversation."

He added that a car can equally easily be rigged to provide details of everywhere it travels, without any need for a traditional private eye to follow a few metres behind.

"You can stick a tracker on the vehicle, or we come out and do it for you," said Paul "It takes like two seconds to put it on. When she goes out, it'll tell you what door number she's sitting outside, even down to how fast the car's going...

"You get access to the page, you get a password and a page reference, and you can either monitor it, or we can monitor itfor you."

London Private Detectives

PC forensic monitoring service, which it says can be installed "fully remotely".

"We will capture every single activity on your partner's computer," it boasts. "You will know who your partner is conversing with over email, Facebook or MSN, what sites they are visiting. You can read all of their messages, find out all of their passwords. In short you will be able to see absolutely everything your partner does on their PC."

Infidelity Detectives

Phone and text monitoring service.

"The software takes seconds to load and once loaded is undetectable by your partner as it does not appear anywhere on their mobile phone, not as an application or in your file system," it says.

"The software runs whenever the mobile is used and the mobile runs as normal. It will record every action performed on the mobile from the texts and calls to the websites visited.

"We store the information remotely and report back the information at any time in the format of your choice. The software is very simple to remove and only needs a single command and it is gone."

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