The sting: private investigators and spying on fracking and trade union activists
By Alon Aviram on 12th July, 2017
One firm shuts down its websites nationwide after hearing about this Cable investigation.
Tabloid phone hacking, trade union blacklisting and the Daniel Morgan murder scandals have shone light on the murky world of private investigation. But what’s happening in our own backyard? The Cable set out to discover what’s going on locally in this unregulated industry that Theresa May as home secretary promised to regulate as far back as 2013.
There are a number of private investigator firms that advertise services in Bristol. For the most part, these companies market matrimonial and corporate surveillance – think spying on cheating partners and investigating the behaviour of employees on the long-term ‘sick’.
“The tracker scenario is the best solution for you with this pain in the backside activist”
As a matter of public interest, the Cable decided to test just how far some of these firms would go to check up on people exercising their democratic rights to organise in trade unions or protest. Posing as potential clients, the Cable contacted three firms operating in Bristol and nationwide, to see what surveillance services are available on the open market.
Their websites advertise an extraordinary range of surveillance devices and techniques made available to suspicious partners and employers.
Claiming to be ‘John’, a manager of a construction firm concerned about trade union organising within his workforce, a Cable reporter found two of the three contacted PI firms were willing to spy on employees at the firm. These agencies said they could surveil workers covertly and create a secret log of their activities.
One PI who went by the name of Paul Turner from privatedetectivesbristol.co.uk (the company is registered as Abbey Group PI Ltd), suggested fixing a GPS vehicle tracker underneath the workers’ vehicles:
“We’ll put it on whatever you want. Yeah, whatever vehicle. The tracker is only the size of a little matchbox, John. A little magnet, it goes underneath the cars or vans whatever, where the shock absorber is in the back.”
When asked whether employees would have to be told about vehicle trackers placed on their private cars, Turner said: “No, no, we don’t tell anybody anything. We just carry out the investigation.” According to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – the independent authority upholding information rights – monitoring vehicles “without the freely given consent of the user, will rarely be justified”.
Turner also offered to provide a record of outgoing calls from private mobile phones. He told the Cable’s reporter:
“The only thing we can do, John, is if you’ve got the numbers, is go back to the service provider and look at numbers they dial out.”
This, Turner said, would show the most frequent numbers called from the targeted phones and help build a picture of communications between employees. “So if your main man Johnny, your sparkie or something is ringing up on weekends, then you know that something is going on.”
The Cable put Turner’s offers of mobile phone surveillance to the Association of British Investigators (ABI). The trade body trains and regulates private investigators and claims that the unregulated industry is ‘plagued by rogue operators’.
The ABI responded, saying: “The circumstances portrayed, whilst anecdotal, would appear to indicate unlawful activity. Were this to be more than speculation, then the matter should be reported to the appropriate law enforcement authority.”
Juliet Christie, from Private Detective (bristol-privatedetectives.co.uk) – officially registered as P D Consultants UK – said that they could provide listening devices, as well as vehicle trackers and “ex-army” private detectives to spy on workers.
“We do listening devices and things like that, but obviously you would have to put them into one of your cars…That would certainly, might be worth doing,” said Christie, explaining that such a device “will ring your phone when somebody’s talking.”
When asked whether the listening devices and vehicle trackers on offer by the firm could be fitted onto private as well as company vehicles, Christie replied: “Absolutely, or any person you’re suspicious of.”
P D Consultants UK has an inconspicuous ‘cover’ website which advertises business services that have nothing to do with investigations. Juliet Christie explained that the website is designed to protect customers from nosy partners spotting invoices from a PI firm in bank statements. “You’re covered in every way with us; we’ve thought of everything,” she said.
Fracking: the oil and gas company sting
A couple of weeks later, the Cable called the same PI firms, this time posing as a secretary from an oil and gas company concerned about anti-fracking activists planning direct action on the company’s property.
Two out of three PI firms contacted agreed to spy on environmental activists and provide the company with personal information obtained via covert surveillance.
Staff speaking on behalf of both Abbey Group PI and P D Consultants UK offered the use of GPS vehicle trackers on the cars of activists, which would provide live information on the whereabouts of any protestor the client wants to track. The PI firms also agreed to go undercover at public anti-fracking meetings and provide audio and filmed recordings.
An investigator who went by the name of Danny from P D Consultants UK said they could spy on an anti-fracking public meeting in Bristol.
“That would include the photographs you’ve asked for as well, to see who’s in those meetings so you can keep them on record, whatever you want to do with them. And my lad’s also recording the full meeting so you know exactly what’s being said and who said it.”
As well as secretly recording the public meeting, the PI said they could spy on an individual activist for the fake oil and gas company. Danny explained that a GPS tracker fixed onto an activist’s private vehicle would provide “real-time information on where he is”.
“The tracker scenario is the best solution for you with this pain in the backside activist that you’ve got who is causing problems with your business,” Danny said. “We do about 200 trackers a week…We’ve got probably 30 jobs on, on any one day.”
This could just be a sales pitch, but company accounts for P D Consultants UK appear to record a profit increase of 25% from £400,000 to £500,000 for the year 2015-16.
The jealous lover
“No, no, we don’t tell anybody anything. We just carry out the investigation.”
Masquerading as a jealous partner inquiring about surveillance options, the Cable’s reporter contacted Paul Turner of Abbey Group PI a third time, on this occasion requesting phone surveillance on a partner suspected of cheating.
Turner again said that he could “go into the service provider and look at numbers” dialled from the partner’s mobile phone and provide the confidential phone records for £650.
“What you’re asking for is data protected obviously,” said Turner. But that didn’t deter him from continuing to offer the illegal service for payment.
Turner added that he could provide a list of outgoing call from any mobile phone across any network: “It’s hard to get, but we’ll get it for you”.
Breaking the law?
The website privatedetectivesbristol.co.uk which listed the phone number that led to Paul Turner, is registered to a Mr Sondogan Salih in Hertfordshire. The website doesn’t display a company number. But Salih is listed on Companies House as the director of Abbey Group PI Ltd – and a logo on the website bears this same name.
Abbey Group PI Ltd advertise services in cities across the UK through a number of identical looking websites. However, within two days of the Cable sending a request for comment on this investigation to Abbey Group PI, their Bristol website and others across the country appear to have been shut down.
These websites displayed an Information Commissioner’s Office logo. But on the basis of what the Cable has learned, the company could well be in breach of ICO guidance, the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA) and the Human Rights Act 1998.
While vehicle tracking by companies can be legal, individuals need to be informed about the data collected about them and why, and there needs to be a legal justification for the collection of the information. Helen Davies, lead communications officer of the ICO, told the Cable:
“It is hard to envisage many circumstances in which a private investigator acting for a private client may have such a justification, especially in light of the intrusive nature of the data collection and the impact it would have on an individual’s rights and freedoms.”
The use of a location tracking device, such as the ones on offer by these PIs, is subject to the DPA, and covert surveillance on employees must only be used in “exceptional circumstances”.
Covert monitoring by employees is only permitted under the DPA according to ICO guidelines, “for the prevention or detection of criminal activity or equivalent malpractice”. Clearly, trade union organising and political campaigning does not constitute illegal activity.
Making use of private detectives is not illegal, but it is a largely unregulated industry. In an age of increasingly intrusive surveillance devices and techniques, it is important to be sure they are being applied within the law and that the industry is subject to independent scrutiny.
The ICO offers guidance about the circumstances in which private investigators can operate and what information they intend to collect. There are legal implications to the use of vehicle trackers and listening devices.
Speaking generally about the growing availability of cheap spyware, Millie Graham Wood, legal officer for the charity Privacy International told the Cable:
“The proliferation of cheap methods to conduct surveillance for malicious and underhand purposes highlights the concerns repeatedly raised by Privacy International about the risks associated with attempts by the government to undermine the security of our devices, and that retention of communications data creates a honey pot for criminals and hackers.”
An industry in desperate need of regulation
A Home Affairs Committee (HAC) hearing on private investigators in 2012 concluded that the “reputable face” of private investigation, presented by a few major companies and trade associations, hides a much larger market of traders that slip below the radar of law enforcement.
It is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 PIs operate in the UK. It’s difficult to say exactly how many, because there isn’t any mandatory licensing or specific sector regulation; in practice, anyone can set up shop as a private investigator.
In 2013, then home secretary Theresa May announced: “The Home Office is to introduce a new system of regulation for private investigators to protect the public from unscrupulous activity.”
Yet four years later we’re nowhere nearer having regulation for PIs. Absurdly, police and public authorities have a specific regulatory framework for surveillance which they must abide by – the Investigatory Powers Act – but the private surveillance industry does not.
At a time when the UK government is threatening to scrap the Human Rights Act, regulation of those willing to breach personal privacy for a price is crucial.
Yes, the ICO can issue enforcement notices and fines of up to £500,000, but rarely does it flex its muscles where PIs are concerned. The investigative capacity of the ICO is limited and PIs by their very nature operate secretly, making enforcement all the more difficult. So if you’re a trade union representative, cheating partner or political campaigner, ask yourself: is someone watching?
Secretive companies and good Google ranking
Search ‘Bristol Private Detective’ on Google and you’ll get plenty of results. That some outrank others is probably a reflection of good SEO (search engine optimisation) rather than quality service. Replace ‘Bristol’ with another UK city in your search, and there’s a high chance you’ll find an identical looking website, with a different city’s name in the url.
After some searching, we found that many PI company websites are connected. For example, Sondogan Salih is the registered domain owner of multiple locally branded UK PI websites.
Although these websites display company addresses for each city, having paid a visit to the Bristol address, it appears that the offices aren’t actually occupied by the firm Abbey Group PI. So, with a little bit of clever website engineering involving redirecting domains and copying websites, a relatively small company can cheaply have national reach.
When the results of the Bristol Cable’s inquiries were put to P D Consultants UK Ltd they responded:
“As a private investigation company, we do hire and sell listening devices to clients for their use; we would track vehicles not persons on behalf of a client; we would ask questions of persons on behalf of our clients.
We take your accusations of unlawful activities very seriously. Our activities are lawful.”
They followed this up with a letter from lawyers threatening legal action if the Cable ‘published false and/ or misleading information designed to harm our client.’
Abbey Group PI Ltd was repeatedly contacted for comment but did not respond. The Cable noted that their Bristol website and others across the country appear to have been shut down.
Have you got information on Private Investigator’s? Contact: Alon@thebristolcable.org.