Steeped in secrecy and wrapped in confidentiality as they are, private investigations and the individuals who work for them can be difficult to deal with in terms of knowing what they are allowed to do by law, and what might go beyond their legal limitations.

When you also consider that private investigators are not officially regulated by the UK government, and are controlled only by a few trade organisations and associations trying to keep the public protected from private detectives who aren’t legitimate, and keep the reputations intact of those credible investigative agencies, you’ve got a recipe for potential disaster. All of this can lead people not just to question the legality of private investigators, but to hold a series of misbeliefs about them, too.

It’s worth mentioning that are many legitimate and trustworthy private investigators in the UK, but to help protect you from those who are not so scrupulous and may be fraudulent, here is a short guide:

What can a private investigator legally do in the UK?

The legally permitted methods below are used by legitimate private investigators in the UK:

  • GPS Vehicle Tracking

UK private investigators are legally permitted to use GPS to track a vehicle, provided the owner of the vehicle in question has consented to such a tracking method.

  • Surveillance

UK law permits private investigators to monitor covertly and follow a person they are investigating, along with take photographs and videos of them, provided they carry out these activities from a public property.

  • Background checks

Private investigators can legally access both public and business records, along with private databases provided they have permission to do so, and can use the following methods to do so:

Counter surveillance – blockers and electronic sweeps can be used if someone believes they’re being targeted personally or professionally

Monitoring – workplace activity on a phone or computer network can be monitored, provided permission by the company’s owner has been granted

Technological forensics – deleted information on mobile phones or computers can be recovered using technological forensics

What can a private investigator not legally do in the UK?

The following methods are not permitted to be used by private investigators according to UK law:

Mishandling data – the processing of personal data is governed by the Data Protection Act to make sure it’s handled in accordance with UK law and that citizens are afforded reasonable levels of privacy

Trespassing – no private investigator is allowed to trespass on private property while carrying out their work without the owner’s permission, nor carry out any surveillance on it either

Carrying a firearm – UK firearm laws don’t permit private investigators to carry guns, and if caught doing so, they face a steep penalty.

Accessing someone’s mail – whether physical post or electronic, no private investigator can open another person’s mail or gain illegal access to their email account.

Arresting someone – whatever wrongdoing may have taken place; no private investigator has the legal power to arrest anyone.

Recording – recording phone calls and recording people in places they would normally expect privacy (such as changing rooms or bathrooms), is not allowed in UK law.

Private investigation services and the individuals who work for them are not allocated specific powers in the same way that the police are, but they do have the legal right to use their training and experience to carry out surveillance on behalf of their clients. They are also often members of at least one trade body within the industry such as the Association of British Investigators (ABI), who have a strict code of ethics. So, while private investigators are not legally bound by a legislation specific to the industry, knowing that they adhere to certain standards can be comforting when hiring them, and of course, if you suspect them of using non legally permissible techniques during their investigations, you should report them to the police.


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