Are we at risk of a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ snooping culture emerging?

daily mailOur report on private investigators, published earlier this year, highlighted the growing use of the industry by public authorities, with particular concern being raised about the occasions that they were used without RIPA authorisation.

The research has spurred investigations into how public authorities are using private investigators, with two stories from this week alone detailing shocking incidents of staff being placed under highly covert and intrusive surveillance, including a mother having a GPS tracker fitted to her family car. The Home Office has agreed with us that the industry should be regulated, stating that operating as an unlicensed private investigator will become a criminal offence.

However, far more could be done to rein in who is allowed to launch surveillance operations and making them responsible for the investigators working on their behalf. If the FBI are required to go to court to get a warrant then there is simply no reason why in Britain we shouldn’t expect snooping operations to be signed off by a judge.

Highlighting the very reason why a warrant should be required, an investigation found that Caerphilly Council has used private investigator’s to snoop on its own employees. Documentation highlights:

  • That surveillance of an employee was requested to ascertain the reason for his or her absence from work
  • That the council was unaware as to whether an employee had been under surveillance
  • That an employee was put under surveillance on the basis of an unsigned form
  • That information was requested that exceeds the restrictions set out in the guidelines, e.g. “We need to know everything about this employee – who [redacted] lives with, what [redacted] is doing etc.”
  • That the council suggests resuming surveillance on an employee who has been spied on before “just to get a feel for this one”.
  • That surveillance was requested on an employee who had a “poor sickness history”
  • That one surveillance company asks for information including “gossip” about an employee it has been hired to spy on

In another story, we learn that West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Services put one of its employees under surveillance after she was suspected of moonlighting while on sick leave. The 999 call centre worker had a GPS tracking device fitted to her family car and had private investigators telephone her with fake offers of work in an effort to lure her into a confession. She has now left her job with an £11,000 payoff after agreeing not to sue the fire authority for ‘unnecessary surveillance’ and intrusion into her private life.

Quite clearly, if the FBI is required to get a warrant to carry out surveillance then there is no serious reason why a public authority in the UK shouldn’t have to. Surveillance of this kind should only ever be used to help the public authority carry out its primary purpose and snooping on staff certainly isn’t included in that. The fact that numerous public bodies think it is acceptable to use private investigators to snoop on their own staff should send a chill down the spine.

There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure that people’s privacy and confidential information is protected from untoward surveillance and intrusion, and regulating private investigators is an important part of this process. Considering whether evidence can be admitted in court based on whether is complies with the regulatory framework will play an important role in deterring heavy handed public authorities from using private investigator’s in the first place.