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Last Updated: Monday, 28 July, 2003, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
Secret Britain: Ask an expert
A 'spy' pen
Peter Heims from the Association of British Investigators answered your questions.



Eavesdroppers, including stalkers and jealous spouses, are listening in on hundreds of thousands of private conversations in Britain every week because of a legal loophole.

Telephone tapping is illegal under the 1998 Wireless Telegraphy Act, but the law relating to bugs and covert cameras is less clear.

Under the Wireless Telegraphy Act any device which transmits a signal has to have a licence and the Radiocommunications Agency, which is part of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), refuses to issue them.

It is estimated more than 200,000 bugs and covert cameras are sold in Britain every year.

Peter Heims, of the Association of British Investigators (ABI), said the situation at the moment, whereby bugs could be sold but not used, was "ridiculous". He would like to see these devices banned altogether.

You put your question to Peter Heims, former president of the Association of British Investigators, in an interactive forum.


Transcript


Susanna Reid:

Hello and welcome to this BBC news interactive forum, I'm Susanna Reid. It is estimated that more than 200,000 electronic bugging devices and covert cameras are sold in Britain every year. Stalkers, snoopers and jealous spouses are just some of the eavesdroppers listening in to private conversations. Although it's legal to buy and sell bugs, it is illegal to use them. That's a loophole in the law that many would like to see changed. Our guest today, to answer your questions, is Peter Heims, as past president of the Association of British Investigators and he would like to see bugging devices banned altogether. Peter welcome.

First, why would you like to see them banned, surely they would help you in your work?


Peter Heims:

They would help us in our work, agreed, but it is essentially against the law to use them. The Wireless and Telegraphy Act of 1949 says you should not use a transmitting device without a licence and the Home Office don't grant licences. So the law is you can be fined 1,000 for this if you're caught. As you said, it's not against the law to buy, sell or have a bug in your possession. However, because it is against the law, we as an association, Association of British Investigators, support that law and that is why.

We have had a campaign over this for years. This isn't new. This has been going on for 20 years. We even had it brought up in Parliament. We had Lord Ted Willis bring it up in the House of Lords and nothing was done about it.


Susanna Reid:

Let me put some questions to you that people have e-mailed and texted to us. Chris Veale from England asks: To what extent is the average person 'watched' in this country either through covert cameras, through being bugged and even through the secret services?


Peter Heims:

You quoted when you came on the fact that 200,000 electronic bugging devices and covert cameras are sold in Britain every year - but nobody can estimate it all because there's no way of estimating the numbers sold. This applies also to the question - you will never know. You don't know how many people are doing it privately, you don't know how many people are doing it officially - you just won't know.


Susanna Reid:

But should we all be concerned that someone out there may be watching us, either as we were talking about, someone personally, or do you think people underestimate how many personal relationships are under surveillance and also on a national scale?


Peter Heims:

I would say yes because there are no guidelines. Yes, probably what we know about is the tip of the iceberg.


Susanna Reid:

Craig McWilliams in the UK asks: How can you go about finding out if you are bugged? Also what counter surveillance equipment is available to the ordinary public at home and does that need to be licensed?

What if you suspect your phone is being tapped or someone has got a camera trained on you?


Peter Heims:

Well it depends on who you think it going to tap it. If you're being tapped officially by the police, MI5, for example, you won't find out because you are being tapped the other side of the exchange.If you are being bugged illegally by a private investigator for a jealous spouse, for example, the only way you would really find out is get an expert in to go over the room, wherever it is, with very sophisticated equipment.

There is a very amateur way of doing it. All these bugs go out on the FM wavelength. So if you get yourself a small portable FM set and say we doing this room, for example, I would just go round the wavelengths and if there is a bug in the room, when your dial hits the wavelength that it's operating on, you'd get this feedback - a high pitched noise - and in order to find out where the bug is, you just move it around to where it is the noisiest. Now that's not the best way of doing but it is an amateur way of doing it and it actually works.


Susanna Reid:

We've also had a question about easy it is to tap a phone? Jefferson Regan asks: How easy it is to tap someone's phone and what are the legalities of tapping someone's phone and how easy is it to find out if your phone has been tapped?


Peter Heims:

Why would anyone ask a question like that, I ask myself. How easy is it to tap a phone - there are various ways that one can tap a phone. The reason why I know about this is because I lecture on counter industrial espionage and this often comes up. You can tap a telephone by putting a radio transmitter inside the phone attached to various wires - that will transmit everything out. You can also put another tap on at the junction - in other words you can have it actually wired into a tape recorder. The law is the Interception of Communications Act 1985, which says that you mustn't do this because you are intercepting a communication. In other words, somebody here is communicating with somebody there and that is against the law. If you are using a transmitting bug, then you are also breaking the Wireless and Telegraphy Act 1949.


Susanna Reid:

How can you tell if your phone has been tapped - either as you say, on the other side of the exchange or by something inside your phone? People use to say - there was a rumour - if you heard a pause then a click you could tell if your phone was being tapped. Is that still the case?


Peter Heims:

Well that is a fallacy - very rarely can you pick up a telephone from noises. The way to find out is to do a physical search - open up the telephone to see if there's anything inside there which doesn't look as if it should be there. Or follow the wires down right outside the house to the junction box - they can be in fact tapped from the top of the telephone pole. Now obviously you're not going to be able to go that far. But if you suspect anything and you follow the line down and you are bugged, there is a chance that you might pick it up.


Susanna Reid:

David Levine, UK: How can you tell if a mobile phone is being bugged?


Peter Heims:

You can't really because it is already on line - you used to be able to get a receiver where you could do this. I am not quite sure what the law is now concerning that aspect.


Susanna Reid:

Rikk, UK asks: Is bugging now easier than ever or are people just becoming more aware of the huge extent of surveillance that is around?


Peter Heims:

I don't it really is becoming easier - I've known about bugs for about 20-odd years.


Susanna Reid:

They must have become more sophisticated in that time.


Peter Heims:

Oh yes, they've become more sophisticated but it doesn't mean to say it is easier. They have become more sophisticated to defeat, shall we say, the debuggers. For example, you get a bug and then you get a debugger surveillance for a sweep, with each trying to outdo the other. So yes they are becoming more sophisticated but only to stop them being found.


Susanna Reid:

D in the UK asks: Banning or licensing the sale of surveillance devices will not curtail illegal taps. Is it not far better to do something to ensure allegations of bugging are taken more seriously? Banning the sale of the equipment will only foster a false feeling of safety from eavesdroppers.

Also, Ed from the UK asks: Do you think that banning the manufacture and sale of such surveillance equipment would create an underground-type black market providing yet another avenue for criminals to exploit and profit from?


Peter Heims:

Yes it would create a black market. Capital punishment won't stop murder but it certainly cuts it down. There are certain magazines which advertise bugs quite blatantly and they have being doing so for years. I've been monitoring a magazine for probably five years and they've been eight companies advertising bugs every week.


Susanna Reid:

Is there any legal action taken against them?


Peter Heims:

No - it's not against the law to do that. As you said, you can sell and buy bugs quite legally. I'm a businessman, if I advertise somewhere and I don't get any business, I stop advertising as I'd be throwing my money away. These companies have being doing it 52 weeks of the year. So what I would like to see is a complete ban on - not only using a bug - advertising a bug, selling a bug, having a bug in your possession. Now that isn't going to stop it but it's certainly going to cut it down. It's just too easy - you can get it on mail order.


Susanna Reid:

Leigh Norton, England asks: I agree that it is worrying how easily these items can be obtained. However, how can such a ban could be practically implemented? Most of these items such as tiny microphones and cameras are also sold for legitimate purposes. They are often sold in component form, but that will not deter the determined from installing in whatever disguise they choose.

That is the case isn't it - look at investigative journalism - tiny microphones and covert cameras are used for perfectly legitimate purposes to expose wrongdoing.


Peter Heims:

In journalism - journalists are probably the most guilty most of the time. They use bugs without licences. I know that the Home Office do not grant licences for journalists to use bugs.


Susanna Reid:

Well there are legitimate purposes.


Peter Heims:

What do you mean by legitimate purposes? I would say generally to use a bug, a transmitting device, unless there is a legitimate reason, by the police or the security services, there can't be, I don't think, a reason why a person like myself, a private investigator, or a person like you, as a normal citizen - I don't think there's a legitimate reason why you should be able to use the bug. So I don't necessarily agree with that. Now obviously if the police want to use a bug or the secret service want to use a bug, they have to get a warrant from the magistrates to do this and they have to prove to the magistrates that it is needed and why it is needed.


Susanna Reid:

Christopher Coleman, Manchester asks: What is the point in illegally tapping phones anyway as anything recorded would be inadmissible as any sort of evidence for a court? Is that the case?


Peter Heims:

Yes, that is the case. But if you tap somebody's phone - he's probably talking about for a private investigator to tap the phone - yes, he wouldn't be able to use the evidence but from what he hears, he may be able to follow it through and get enough information legitimately from what he's heard to use it as evidence.


Susanna Reid:

But you wouldn't use that sort of practice?


Peter Heims:

No, not at all. No, I've been in business for 50 years and my reputation is my shop window. For the money I could earn, for the shortcuts - I wouldn't break the law and I hope that members of my association wouldn't break the law either.


Susanna Reid:

Roger Green, UK asks: Do modern digital forms of communication (text messaging, digital mobile phone, e-mail) make it easier or harder for the would-be eavesdropper?

Do forms of communication like that make your job easier?


Peter Heims:

I would say the use of digital phones etc. would make it harder because I certainly wouldn't know where to start bugging one of those things even if I wanted to. They make it easier for us to use because it's an immediate form of communication.


Susanna Reid:

If you're anti-bugging and you don't particularly take to these other forms of communication, what do you find the most effective method of surveillance in your years of practice as a private investigator?


Peter Heims:

My senses - watching, listening, surveillance - back to the old, old days when you would go out on foot and follow somebody. It takes a lot longer sometimes. I am not against bugging from the morality side of it - I am against it because it's against the law. If we have got a law, whether we agree with the law, we have got to keep it. I realise it would take a lot of short cuts and save clients a lot of money if we could use bugs, but we can't use bugs.


Susanna Reid:

Why are your forms of surveillance better?


Peter Heims:

I don't say they're better - they are legal.


Susanna Reid:

James Clark in the UK asks: Do you think it's dangerous the fact that so many privacy laws are being passed but no freedom of information laws with any teeth? Do you find yourself frustrated with the laws that are passed?


Peter Heims:

I am against privacy laws, for example. I couldn't care less who looked into my business.


Susanna Reid:

Well you profit from a lack of privacy law.


Peter Heims:

That's true of course. But not necessarily do I look upon it from that side. I couldn't care less whether my privacy is invaded. Your questioner has raised an interesting point. The Freedom of Information Act - now one contradicts the other - the Data Protection Act, which is the law that protects - not privacy - but it's a privacy type of legislation - now that is completely contrary to the Freedom of Information Act. This is why, I think, they have put off implementing the Freedom of Information Act because the two clash with each other. If I'm not given information under the Data Protection Act, I am sure there are some ways where I can claim under the Freedom of Information Act that I am entitled to it. So sooner or later they're going to clash.


Susanna Reid:

Peter Heims, I'm afraid that's all we have time for. Thank you very much for joining me and to you for your many questions. From me, Susanna Reid, and the rest of the news interactive team in London, goodbye.




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