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UK Spy Equipment Laws

Spy equipment is absolutely integral in ensuring security at home and in the workplace. Using covert cameras, tracking devices, phone monitoring, listening devices and computer forensics can dramatically improve the safety of individuals and success of businesses. Security equipment has been used by governments, police forces and corporations for many years, and now their use is becoming more widespread by individual consumers. Spy equipment works as a brilliant crime deterrent and evidential collection tool in a variety of circumstances.

But you might be wondering - what are the spy equipment laws in the UK? or is it legal to spy on someone using devices.

If you are intending to use any kind of spy gadget, it is absolutely essential that you understand the laws involved in doing so. Spy equipment must only be used for legitimate security reasons. Any government body must comply with RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) guidelines if they wish to use any kind of spy equipment. In the private sector, the rules are more lenient, but when deploying covert spy gear, you are expected to respect the reasonable privacy of any individual that is involved in recording or tracking, and abide by statutory regulations on data protection at all times. A failure to do so could result in prosecution. Here is a basic guide to the laws involved with spy equipment that you are legally obliged to follow.  


The Law on Spy Cameras

Spy cameras are one of the most useful pieces of monitoring equipment available today. However, they also have the strictest rules. If a spy camera user does not comply with any of these laws, serious legal action can be taken.

Legal requirements of spy camera use

  • It is illegal to use any kind of surveillance in areas where individuals would expect privacy, such as in changing rooms, locker rooms, or toilets, unless in exceptional circumstances where there is a legal issue and this action has been approved by the police. In this case, the operator should make extra effort to ensure that individuals are aware that cameras are in use.
  • In public, any CCTV deployed that records sound must be accompanied by a clear sign to inform that CCTV is in operation.
  • Conversations between members of the public should not be recorded on CCTV.
  • All public CCTV cameras should be registered with the Information Commissioner’s Office.
  • In any type of covert surveillance, footage should only be used for the purpose for which it has been taken, which must be a legitimate security reason.
  • You must only retain footage for as long as it is reasonably needed.
  • It is not permitted to release footage to third parties despite when there is a legal necessity.
  • You have a responsibility to keeping all footage safe.
  • Covert camera users should have a retention policy. You should only keep the images for as long as necessary to meet the purpose of recording them.
  • Public CCTV has to be used to protect citizens rather than spy on them.
  • The use of a surveillance camera system must take into account its effect on individuals and their privacy, with regular reviews to ensure its use remains justified.
  • CCTV camera users are not allowed to disclose images of identifiable people to the media - or put them on the internet - for entertainment.
  • You are required to implement clear procedures on use of the surveillance system and how information is used, and must regularly check it is followed.

Legal use of spy cameras

  • Using covert surveillance in the home to spy on others.
  • Using hidden cameras in the workplace to monitor employees.
  • Using spy cameras to protect yourself in most situations.
  • Placing CCTV cameras on the outside of a domestic or commercial property for security purposes.

What is illegal use of a spy camera?

  • Deploying covert cameras in areas where individuals would have an expectation of privacy, such as bathrooms, changing rooms and locker rooms.
  • Planting a hidden camera in someone else’s home, or an area someone else owns.
  • Using covert cameras for illegal reasons.
  • Using spy cameras for an illegitimate reason.
  • Sharing images or footage with third parties other than for legal reason.
  • Releasing footage or images to the media.
  • Recording conversations between members of the public on CCTV.  

The Laws on Vehicle Trackers

Vehicle tracking devices are great for monitoring employees, new drivers and family members. There is some degree of uncertainty regarding the application of specific legislation in the case of tracking devices, however you should always comply with privacy and human rights laws. To lawfully use a tracker you must follow these rules.

Legal requirements of tracking device use

  • Placing a tracker in a car in a way that does not contravene other legislation such as vehicle interference.
  • To collect personal data that can be used to identify an individual as defined under the 1998 Data Protection Act requires the collector to be registered with the ICO and have a DPA number.
  • You must install the tracker in a public space, or a space where you have implied private access, and not the home of the person being tracked.
  • If commercial vehicles may be used for business and private purposes, you must notify the driver of the tracking device and explain how to turn off tracking when the vehicle is in private use.
  • You are obliged to take into account privacy laws as explained on the Data Protection act and any Human Rights Acts.

Legal use of vehicle trackers

  • Tracking vehicles you own as used by others such as employees to monitor usage in business hours.
  • Tracking vehicles you do not own for a legitimate reason, providing you either place the device on the outside of the vehicle, such as underneath the bumper, or if you have lawful access to the inside of the car.
  • The vehicle is not allowed to be exclusively tracked on private property.
  • You could obtain the same information about the vehicle via physically trailing it.
  • The vehicle is not situated on property owned by someone else that you do not have right of access to during deployment of the tracker.
  • The use of the tracker is used in a manner proportionate to the extent needed to gather information.

What is illegal use of a vehicle tracking device?

  • Placing a tracker on the inside of a vehicle you do not own.
  • You need to break into the vehicle to install the device.
  • You would have to physically hard-wire the device in the vehicle.
  • The vehicle is situated in a place where the driver would have a reasonable expectation of privacy, for instance in a personal garage.
  • If used to trespass on others’ property or for purposes that may be deemed harassment or any other illegal use.
  • Use of a tracker in a way not relative to the need to gather information.  

The Laws on People Trackers

People trackers can be incredibly useful for keeping vulnerable individuals safe and secure when they are out and about. They can also be deployed to keep an eye of suspected partners or employees, with reasonable cause. Usually these trackers are placed in cars or phones, but they can be kept in bags, too. However, there are laws you must consider to avoid breaching privacy concerns.

Legal requirements of people tracker use

  • Any private investigator using a people tracker in an investigation for a public organisation must comply with RIPA laws and be registered with the ICO.
  • Legitimate private uses include parents using trackers to ensure child safety.
  • Tracking suspected employees in proportion with criminal investigation to protect a company.

Legal use of people trackers

  • A Private Investigator can use a tracking device if acting on behalf of a company that has employed them to investigate an employee with reasonable concern over fraud or criminal offence in relation to that company.
  • Use of asset trackers for safety purposes in which the individual tracked is aware of the device.

What is illegal use of a people tracker?

  • The use of people trackers in an intrusive manner that contravenes privacy and human rights laws such as that which could be deemed harassment.
  • Using people trackers for illegal and non-legitimate purposes.
  • Tracking a partner may be considered a breach of privacy under certain circumstances, but is usually not a criminal matter unless any other illegal activity has been involved in the process.  

The Laws on Asset Trackers

When you’ve worked hard to gain a new prized possession, or something holds sentimental value, the last thing you want to happen it is to be lost or stolen. Asset trackers can allow you to monitor where your assets are to keep peace of mind on journeys or when you are away. These are usually legal, but there are laws to be aware of.

Legal requirements of asset tracker use

  • Government bodies must only use asset trackers in accordance with the RIPA act.
  • Private users must take into account privacy laws and human rights acts. Asset trackers should be used for legitimate security purposes.

Legal use of asset trackers

  • Use of an asset tracker to monitor your personal possessions at home or on journeys, such as in postage, to prevent theft or loss.
  • Use by governments and associated corporations to track illegal trade for crime-combative purposes.
  • Businesses tracking cargo across seas to ensure they are exported successfully.
  • Asset trackers employed by businesses to monitor trade and performance.

What is illegal use of an asset tracker?

  • Using an asset tracker to monitor trade of illegal goods.
  • Using a tracker to discern private information about an individual.
  • The use of a tracker in non-compliance with privacy and human rights laws.
  • Tracking goods that belong to someone else, unless there is a legitimate cause to do so.  

The Laws on Listening and Recording Devices

Whether you want to tackle bad neighbours, or find out what your workforce is talking about during office hours, listening and recording devices are a great way to establish your peace of mind. However, as with all other spy equipment, there are privacy regulations you have to abide by.

Legal requirements of listening and recording device use

  • You must not use listening or recording devices that are illegal.
  • You may only use listening or recording devices within reasonable privacy laws for legitimate security and safety reasons.
  • Using listening devices in your own property to capture evidence of excessive noise in a neighbour complaint

Legal use of listening and recording devices

  • Listening or recording people in public areas.
  • Placing listening or recording devices in an office or business area.
  • Deploying a listening or recording bug in your own home.

What is illegal use of listening and recording devices?

  • The use of listening devices on certain Military band and Air Band UHF and FM frequencies - some of those who have not followed this law have been fined over £10,000.
  • Placing a listening or recording device in someone else’s home.
  • Use of a radio transmission bug that transmits on restricted frequencies contravenes the Telecommunications Act and is illegal.
  • Using a listening or recording device to intrude on the reasonable expectation of privacy of an individual, i.e. placing gadgets in someone’s home or car to which you do not have permitted access, or in a private area such as a bathroom.  

The Laws on Phone Monitoring

Phone monitoring allows users to keep track of their conversations, whether it is simply for note-taking purposes or for evidential use. There are laws on recording conversations that should be strictly followed to avoid moving into illegal territory.

Legal requirements of phone monitoring

  • Those organisations tapping phone calls must first be granted a warrant by the Home Secretary.
  • If you intend to divulge any information sourced from a recorded conversation to a third party you must have notified the other member of the conversation that they were being recorded, unless circumstances dictate that notifying the caller would jeopardise the outcome of a lawful investigation.

Legal use of phone monitoring devices

  • Police, security and intelligence services and HM Revenue and Customs are allowed to tap anyone’s phone without notice for reasons relating to national security, economic well-being of the UK or serious crime. They must comply with RIPA standards.
  • Recording your own phone conversations without notifying the other person, providing you don’t intend to share the information with a third party or in the course of a legitimate investigation where covert recording of calls is required to gather evidence.
  • Businesses recording phone calls between employees and customers for commercial performance and security purposes.
  • Use of transcripts as evidence in the case of business phone calls recorded when both people were aware that they were being recorded.

What is illegal phone monitoring?

  • Individuals recording other people’s phone calls, unless this forms part of a legitimate investigative inquiry.
  • Tapping - making the content of another person’s call available to someone not involved in their conversation, unless the contents of the call are required for a legitimate investigation.
  • Give information from a phone call you have been part of and recorded if the other person believed it was confidential to a third party unless in compliance with the Data Protection Act of 1998.
  • Businesses recording phone conversations between employees and customers for non-commercial performance or security purposes without notifying the customer, unless the contents of the call are required for a legitimate investigation.  

The Laws on Computer Monitoring and Forensics

Computer monitoring and forensics have been successfully employed by governments and businesses for many years. Keeping track of employees’ computer usage can significantly improve company productivity, and monitoring children’s internet usage can ensure safety on the web. Some use computer monitoring software on their own devices to check what a partner has been browsing. Forensic data can be collected for security purposes. However, some other uses for computer monitoring are forbidden.

Legal requirements of computer monitoring and forensics use

  • You must be the owner of the computer being monitored.
  • Employers must identify the purpose of the required monitoring before implementing programmes on employee computers.
  • You must notify the individual using the computer that it will be monitored before using software, unless you are a parent and your child is under 18, or when this does not form part of a legitimate investigative inquiry.
  • You must take into account privacy laws and must not breach any reasonable expectation of privacy of the employee whose computer is being monitored.
  • Company owners must take into account the rules of the Lawful Business Practice Regulations Act.
  • You are responsible for an action taking in regards to any forensic data captured.
  • Only those with forensic knowledge must enact computer forensic investigations.
  • Forensic data must only be used for security purposes when there is a legitimate suspicion.

Legal use of computer monitoring and forensics

  • Monitoring employees’ computers and phones, providing they are owned by the company, to ensure they are working properly and to prevent fraud and criminal activity.
  • Parents monitoring the computers of children under the age of 18.
  • Use of keystroke programmes to log employee internet usage.
  • Collection of forensic computer data for security reasons with viable need for investigation.

What is illegal computer monitoring and forensics use?

  • Monitoring employees or individuals’ private devices, emails, phone calls, or other information.
  • Hacking into other people’s devices via illegal software or methods.
  • Sharing private information with third parties, unless for legal reasons.
  • Use of forensic computer investigation without legitimate cause.  

The Laws on Counter-surveillance

If you are worried that you are being spied on, you will want to find out for sure and work out why. This is where counter-surveillance steps in to protect your privacy. Anyone is legally entitled to enact counter-surveillance in order to ensure that they are not being watched, filmed, recorded or monitored.

Legal requirements of counter-surveillance

  • You must only use legal equipment and methods when using counter-surveillance.
  • Counter-surveillance should only be used for personal security purposes, not to infringe on the privacy of another.

Legal use of counter-surveillance

  • The use of counter-surveillance systems to ensure you are not being monitored.
  • The use of counter-surveillance to find out who you are being monitored by.
  • Using counter-surveillance to discern by which methods you are being tracked in order to combat surveillance.

What is illegal counter-surveillance?

  • The use of counter-surveillance systems such as GSM/GPS/WiFi/3G/4G jammers.
  • Illegal use of intrusive counter-surveillance not abiding privacy laws and human rights acts.
  • Knowingly using counter-surveillance against a government security body.

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