Watching the Detectives

14/05/2012 12:30 BST | Updated 14/07/2012 10:12 BST

Just over a year ago I set out to expose for Channel 4 Dispatches how unregulated private detectives were openly selling our most personal information, and how they might be obtaining this data from supposedly secure government databases, banks and mobile phone companies.

As far back as 2006 the Information Commissioner published a report called What Price Privacy, which included a shopping list revealing how much PIs were selling our private data for on the black market: An ex directory telephone number cost only £75 where accessing someone's mobile account was £750. But since then no-one had seriously followed up on this explosive allegation it up - not the journalists who would normally investigate such large scale wrongdoing, nor the police.

The phone hacking scandal has brought to public attention investigators selling intrusive information on celebrities. This in some ways has distracted from a much wider issue of the trading in the private and most personal information on us all.

So, how to catch the PIs in the act, and track the source of their illegal information? After much considering it was decided that I would pose as someone wanting thorough background checks on individuals, who, unbeknownst to the PIs, had given me their consent for the checks. I would invent a company, a new identity and pay in cash to avoid setting off any alarm bells. Any information received from the PI's would be cross checked to establish where it might come from and if there had been a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998. As I would have consent for the checks, the legal advice was that I would have a strong public interest defence against any accusations of criminality. All I needed was to get permission from publicly minded citizens who would volunteer to be the subjects of the investigation.

Recruiting volunteers took about a year. Most people said "no" straight away, for obvious reasons - who in their right minds wants a private investigator rummaging through their past and then the results to be broadcast on national television? Some altruistic acquaintances agreed, as they could see the important public service in our mission. We always gave people a cooling off period, and most who said yes at first would call back two days later to politely decline, once the implications had set in. Eventually a good friend Tom Puukko, who runs an advertising company, and two political activists bravely said yes to our plans, and, as Britain's best loved private detective Sherlock Holmes would say: "the game was afoot".

Given that I've had some limited media exposure, I thought it best to change my appearance before I went to meet any PIs. My producer Christina Slater said it was wishful thinking that I was famous enough to be recognised, but we decided to err on the side of caution. And much to my partners annoyance I shaved my hair, grew a goatee and began wearing glasses.

A web search of "Private Detective" brings up an astonishing number of outfits advertising their services. Most seemed to offer 'background checks', and it seemed they often worked on matrimonial disputes, insurance claims, employee screening and corporate rivalry. I started cold calling pretending to need thorough checks on our volunteers. Some were up front and explicitly stated that they wouldn't breach the Data Protection Act. Others suggested they might obtain questionable information. But a few offered me personal data that ostensibly could only be obtained by breaching the Data Protection Act, and it was with these firms that I arranged meetings.

The realisation of what I was about to do hit me. Here I was, a filmmaker with no experience of spying, private detective work, about to go toe to toe with people who had been doing cloak and dagger work their entire lives. All these PIs claimed they were experts at counter surveillance, so I had real concerns that I might be exposed. Backed by Channel 4's Dispatches strand, the experienced investigative executive producer Paul Woolwich and extremely diligent assistant producer Tom Marchbanks, I felt a lot safer investigating the murkier side of private investigators industry.

Nevertheless, the build-up to the meetings with PI's were awful. The worst thing you can possibly do is worry that your buttonhole camera is somehow showing, or fret that anything else might be going wrong. As I walked down the road to that first meeting I keep telling myself cool calm rational thoughts and not to let it become overwhelming. But thankfully as soon as I met the PI the adrenaline kicked in, and the rush would keep me focused until the meeting was over.

There are some pretty tough rules to follow in undercover filming for TV - you can't just rock up somewhere with a micro camera in your tie and hope someone says something naughty. There's a strict procedures we had to follow, quite rightly, that means you have to have strong evidence of probable wrongdoing before you get wired up. We had to wait for the PI to offer the illegal data first before we commissioned any undercover filming.

The level of private information that we were sold for a few hundred pounds was genuinely shocking. Medical records, benefits records, national insurance numbers, criminal records, itemised mobile phone bills, and bank statements were all provide to use for a few hundred pounds. Both the acquisition and sale of this information break the Data Protection Act. One of the PIs even boasted that he carried out similar work for the Metropolitan Police, though the Met have denied this.

Two months after the investigation started, the phone hacking scandal blew up, and we thought this would probably kick our investigation into the long grass. However, after a couple of months on hold we found that the PIs were still just as willing to sell us information illegally.

Unbelievably I had several meetings with PIs while revelations from the Leveson Inquiry, which looked into private detectives selling celebrities' confidential information to newspapers, were dominating the headlines. So it was sods law that I got the call to give evidence to Lord Leveson myself in the same week I'd arranged to meet with two PIs. Fearing my cover would be blown I made my case to the Inquiry and they kindly agreed to turn the cameras off, and even hustled me in through the back entrance of the Royal Courts, well away from the 'paps'.

I gave evidence over two hours and thought everything had gone swimmingly until I was safely in the pub round the corner. A reporter friend of mine said that the feed had gone live for five minutes to anyone watching the Inquiry website at the time. It turned out someone had sat on a remote or similar, and there were a few red faces at the Inquiry. I crossed my fingers that none of the PIs I was investigating had clocked this, but it wasn't until I'd had my next meetings and come out unscathed that we knew we were in the clear.

Given that I had been 'running' several different PIs for nearly a year, it isn't hugely surprising that my cover was eventually blown. In January I had a phone conversation with one the PIs who had already provided me with a volunteers bank statements and mobile phone bills, and we arranged to meet in a sandwich bar on Victoria Street two days later to discuss further checks.

But there was something odd about his tone, rather than being matey and conspiratorial, he was now detached and cold. That night I couldn't sleep, and kept turning over in my mind what would happen if they did rumble me. Channel 4 secret filming guidelines have a procedure for this, essentially "Make your excuses and leave. Get out safely and keep hold of the secret camera footage."

The Café had a large glass window, and it occurred to me that if I sat next to it we would be clearly visible from the other side of the road. If I could get a cameraman holed up out of sight, he'd get a nice profile view of the meeting in case there was a problem. The next day I went down to Victoria and got 'wired up' in a public toilets for what was to be the last time. I got to the sandwich shop nice and early and sat by the window waiting for the PIs to turn up. I was only expecting Marcus, but his boss Nick arrived with him, which put me on my guard straight away. Both are ex-soldiers. After a couple of minutes of banal banter Nick dropped the bombshell.

"The reason for the meeting is, we're not really sure who you are", Nick said.

I'd been rumbled!

Nick continued: "We went to your offices, doesn't exist. We know you wore a camera last time you were with Marcus. You're wearing one now, I can actually see it... "So I want to know who you are and what it is you want?"

I was immediately concerned but remembered my training. "Right at that point I'm afraid the meeting is over. And I'm going to leave", I said. Outside I felt a massive sense of relief - that was it, it was over. I didn't have to go through this ordeal any more. The relief was short lived; I turned round to see Nick and Marcus trailing me down the street.

"Are you following me?", I awkwardly asked. "Yes" replied Nick. Not that I needed confirmation.

A cab not slowed to crawl right in front of me, and I found myself whacking it on the top to alert the driver to stop and jumped in the back in a less than dignified manner. As the cab pulled away I felt sheer relief as my extraordinary undercover expose' of the private investigation had come to an abrupt end.

Chris Atkins is the Reporter/Producer of Watching the Detectives, Channel 4 Dispatches 8pm Monday 14 May.