Big Brother next door: UK facing a silent explosion of private investigators
‘A CCTV camera for every 14 citizens’ is a widely cited
statistic in the UK, despite exact numbers being difficult to
calculate. However, surveillance takes on a much more human guise
in the form of the private investigative units which have sprung up
around the country.
Unlicensed and unregulated, anyone can adopt the title of ‘private investigator’ as they conduct covert surveillance operations.
“If I want to go out and do surveillance – I don’t have to get any authority from anybody if it’s ordinary surveillance one-to-one,” said James Harrison-Griffiths, a former police detective inspector.
Harrison-Griffiths aired concern over the potentially disastrous consequences of this loose policy:
“There’s a lot of people that disappear – under pressure from people to do certain things that they don’t want to do, and then the people that are pressuring them want to find them, and you’ve got to do your due diligence and make sure you’re not putting anybody in a position of danger.” The lack of governmental regulation on such investigators has been a source of great concern among British campaigners. UK privacy watchdog Big Brother Watch (BBW) stated in March that the current legal framework for regulating the activities of private investigators is wholly inadequate.
“I think it’s absolutely essential that we have some kind of regulation over private investigators – a licensing system that means that we know exactly who is licensed and the means of surveillance that they are using,” said Emma Carr of BBW.
But despite these fears, a variety of UK authorities have been using the firms to conduct operations against their own citizens.
The total amount spent by councils, public authorities and government departments commissioning external organizations to carry out surveillance was nearly £4 million (over $6 million) for the years 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, according to a BBW report published in March.
There are an estimated 10,000 private investigators currently working in Britain, and the industry continues to grow.
“It’s moving from the shadows and onto the high streets as the cost of covert devices falls, more and more individuals are making use of surveillance gadgets, easily available,” RT correspondent Sara Firth said.
Private investigation firms employ a wide variety of people to carry out surveillance operations, leading Harrison-Griffiths to comment that surveillance in Britain is now just a
“way of life.”“It’s not difficult to make yourself invisible; it’s more difficult to be relaxed while you’re doing it,” said 21-year-old Olivia, who works at UK firm Answers Investigation. The firm has been known to employ girls as young as 16, who pose as teenagers doing school projects.
“When you first start, you’re always thinking oh my goodness, they know, I just know they know, but actually, they don’t,” Olivia explained.
“I’m just not suspected at all.” The availability of information – combined with ongoing fast-paced technological improvements in surveillance equipment that can be hidden in handbags and coffee cups – means that although the work requires a degree of analytical thinking and the covert tailing of individuals, some information-based operations are relatively easy to carry out.
“Electoral roles, marriage and death certificates, you can get hold of all of that kind of stuff – it’s all available. It does shock quite a lot of people – mainly, because obviously, the information is there – it’s always been there, but they just assume that – I think – their assumption is that because of the Data Protection Act, there’s nothing available on them,” Olivia said.
National security laws used by councils to spy on litter-droppers
The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) is supposed to govern public and private surveillance in the UK, and also encompasses the communications surveillance. However, this act is intended to apply to national security operations.
In the year 2008, a Northampton MP said that RIPA was being used to catch dogs defecating on public grass, and other petty offences such as ‘bin crimes,’ which included depositing household waste in a public bin.
Other councils have been found using it to determine whether children live in school catchment areas, leading privacy campaigners to liken the actions of UK councils to those of the Stasi. In 2006, more than 1,000 applications per day were being made to use RIPA powers.
Following these scandals, the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 came into force, which effectively meant that councils would need to justify the use of RIPA’s surveillance powers before a magistrate’s court prior to their employment, and then obtain legal authorization for surveillance.
The BBW March report found that 14 organizations, including 10 councils, commissioned external organizations to undertake surveillance not under the provision of RIPA, while a further 29 that also employed external bodies to undertake surveillance did so under RIPA.
Big Brother Watch now believes that RIPA is in serious need of reform in order to protect Britons from unauthorized surveillance.