Private investigators are selling access to financial and criminal records
Posted : 23rd May 2012
It doesn't take long. Several minutes into their first meeting, the director of Crown Intelligence offers an undercover reporter a broad range of highly sensitive and potentially illegal personal data.
A hidden camera monitors Stephen Anderson leaning across his desk in a plush office near Hyde Park, central London, saying: "I could go through his criminal history, his financial history, bank accounts, loans, medical history."
It is 5 May 2011, two months before David Cameron announced the Leveson inquiry into press ethics and the media's use of private investigators to access personal data. At a time when broader debate over privacy, data protection and press intrusion is raging, Anderson confirms that the most sensitive of personal information is easily available so long as you are prepared to pay.
Over the months that followed, even after the start of Lord Justice Leveson's inquiry, Anderson would provide undercover reporters with a gamut of highly personal information. On Monday Channel 4's Dispatches will screen its year-long investigation revealing the ease and extent to which the unregulated private investigation industry is willing to acquire personal data for a price.
An undercover reporter, posing as a risk analysis company representing multinationals, approached private investigators requesting background information on political activists they claimed were targeting clients. The programme's intention was to reveal the risk to ordinary people, rather than celebrities targeted by sections of the press.
Volunteers agreed to have their identities used to see how much personal information could be obtained. James Leadbitter, 31, a climate change activist from Burnley, Lancashire, was one. Another was Thomas Barlow, 29, of Manchester, a charity worker and activist. The reporter approached Crown Intelligence, whose website promised to "investigate communications, finances, lifestyle, contacts, work …" At a meeting days later, Anderson says he can deliver details on schooling, friends, love life and employment – information which is mostly in the public domain. But then the conversation shifts to more sensitive areas: Anderson says he can deliver details of criminal history, financial matters and even medical details.
Cameron Addicott, a former investigator with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, was under no illusion when shown the footage. "This is the sort of service that they [private investigators] offer. But it's just quite clear that it's contrary to the Data Protection Act."
However, the Data Protection Act does allow for unlawful access where it is in the public interest or for the detection and prevention of crime.
Three weeks after the first meeting, Anderson contacted undercover reporters with his provisional findings on Leadbitter. One line in the report stands out. "The subject made several claims for state benefits. However, there are no current claims." Such information was unavailable from public sources.
An individual's social security details are stored on the Department for Work and Pensions database. Data protection experts believe 200,000 people have access to the DWP database, including government departments and councils.
Anderson was asked for more details on Leadbitter's benefits. The private investigator says he will need another item of personal data not publicly available – Leadbitter's national insurance number. Yet, Anderson explains, there might be another way, mentioning an "internal contact" that might circumvent the need for Leadbitter's NI number. A month later, for less than £500, he had acquired details of Leadbitter's state benefits and NI number.
Security analysts say it is possible that Crown Intelligence might have accessed Leadbitter's benefits records by "blagging" rather than his "internal source". Blagging is the practice of pretending to be someone else and hoping the person at the other end of the phone falls for it. An audio tape obtained by the programme records someone unsuccessfully attempting to blag details of Leadbitter's bank account. Other attempts were more fruitful. Leadbitter's bank details, the account into which the benefits were deposited, were accessed. A DWP spokesman said checks showed the details had not come from them.
Anderson's attention turned to Barlow. He suggested looking at his criminal history. The results yield a secret that Barlow had hoped would never be revealed – a shoplifting conviction.
Anderson might have found the details lawfully in the records of Manchester magistrates court, but only if he had known where the case was heard. The offence was not in the public domain and the only way of finding it would require calling every court in the country.
Anderson insists that all information was "obtained legally" using a combination of court records, surveillance, legal search tools and the internet.
Tony Imossi, president of the Association of British Investigators, said a full criminal history can be obtained either from the Criminal Records Bureau or the Police National Computer, neither of which can be accessed by the private sector. The Home Office confirms there are no circumstances where an organisation can carry out a CRB check secretly.
Three weeks later Crown Intelligence uncover Leadbitter's GP and the dates of his last two appointments. In Barlow's case, Anderson's health check confirms he was a sufferer from severe acne.
Paul Cundy, chairman of the GP IT committee of the British Medical Association, said such information could only have been gleaned from having access to patient records. Tracing those who have accessed the records is difficult.
Anderson denies any allegation of wrongdoing, saying that Crown Intelligence carried out the work in good faith and was led to believe that its work would prevent and detect crime. He also argues that, because the volunteers gave their consent, no offences have been committed under the Data Protection Act.