Getting Tough on Data Protection

Channel Four’s Watching the Detectives documentary last week stirred up the age-old debate on industry regulation.  Or at least, it did in our office.

The Home Affairs Committee Seminar on Private Investigators (HACSPI) met days after the documentary was aired to discuss some of the issues raised by the programme and, in particular, whether strict licensing or regulation might help repair an industry struggling to cope with a seemingly endless barrage of negative publicity.

But not everyone believes that to be the right way forward.

Speak to any private detective and you’re likely to hear a variety of views on the matter, ranging from enthusiastic optimism to out-and-out horror.

A statement published on the Association of British Investigator’s (ABI) website details proposals for the industry to move towards Chartered Institute status by the end of 2013, with regulatory controls set to include ongoing training and assessment, strict vetting, mandatory insurance and adherence to a code of ethics.

Yesterday HACSPI convened to discuss progress in this direction with secretary of state for equalities and criminal information Lynne Featherstone, who is charged with overseeing the move.

The committee also heard details of how one firm of private investigators paid £20,000 to two police constables from the Met for details about their investigation into Nigerian money launderer James Ibori.

At the previous HACSPI meeting it was rightly pointed out that regulation won’t necessarily deter illegal operatives.  It’s easy to imagine how agencies like those featured on Dispatches, might simply be driven further underground, or re-emerge under some other more fitting and accurate trade description not covered by the Chartered Institute.

Also muted at committee meetings was the possibility of tougher penalties for Data Protection Act breaches.  There is sound logic in this.  Organisations have just as much responsibility to resist the temptation to make such requests of investigators as the investigators themselves have to refuse them.

Unfortunately, the current perception of private investigators is that they are a lawless breed- prepared to break the law at the drop of a hat or the appearance of the proverbial brown envelope.

Membership to a professional body – particularly a chartered institute – might go some way toward countering this but only in conjunction with far tougher penalties for those that are willing to sell or receive stolen data.

Bob Clowrey works with, a private detective with more than 40 years working on cases in the UK and internationally.