Home affairs committee calls for urgent action to curb ‘rogue’ private investigators and black market in information
Phone hacking is the tip of the iceberg in a huge black market of private information, a committee of MPs has said.
Keith Vaz, the Labour MP and chair of the home affairs select committee, called on the government to take urgent action to curb this unregulated trade in personal data by private investigators and their clients.
A black market in information is being facilitated by the easy availability of cheap tracking and digital monitoring devices, the committee said in a report published on Friday.
“Recent high-profile events, such as the phone-hacking scandal, have thrown light on the sometimes shady world of private investigators,” said Vaz. “We have found that rogue private investigators are the brokers in a black market in information. They illegally snoop on our data, cash in on our private lives and only get away with a paltry fine.”
The committee did not mention “pinging” of mobile phones by name in its report, but this is one of the secret tracking systems used by some private investigators to trace their subjects.
The practice came to light during the phone-hacking scandal and involves sending signals to a person’s mobile phone and discovering their approximate location by triangulating the results with nearby phone masts.
The private eye firm the Surveillance Group expressed “grave concerns” about illicit use of tracking and digital monitoring when it gave evidence to the cross-party group of MPs.
The committee said the current £100 fine for offences relating to the unlawful obtaining, disclosure and selling of personal data was simply not an effective deterrent.
The MPs recommended that private eyes and private investigation firms should be licensed and operate under a code of conduct. A criminal record for breach of section 55 of the Data Protection Act should disqualify individuals from operating as private investigators, the MPs said.
The committee added that police officers should be forced to take a 12-month “cooling-off period” before becoming a private investigator, after hearing evidence that the career move is a growing trend in the industry.
“It is also time for the link between private investigators and our police forces to be broken,” said Vaz. “Officers must be compelled to declare any dealings with private investigators and be subject to a cooling-off period before they can move from the police service to the private investigation industry.
“It is time this industry was regulated, so that the honest majority can get on with their work,” he added. “We expect the government to act urgently.”
• To contact the MediaGuardian news desk email [email protected] or phone 020 3353 3857. For all other inquiries please call the main Guardian switchboard on 020 3353 2000. If you are writing a comment for publication, please mark clearly “for publication”.