Is following people illegal? ‘News of the World’ investigation techniques and the civil law « Inforrm’s Blog
Michael Crick of Channel 4 News has reported that there were 153 names on Mr Webb’s lists. This list includes 13 MPs as well as legal figures such as Lords Irvine, Macdonald and Goldsmith. Many of those on this list are also reported to have been phone hacking victims – including Princes William and Harry, Paul Gascoigne, Lee Chapman, Gordon Taylor, Heather Mills and Ashley Cole. As was widely reported last week, lawyers working for phone hacking victims were also placed under surveillance.
According to the BBC, Mr Webb kept detailed logs of his movements and observations while on surveillance jobs. He said
“Basically I would write down what they were wearing at the time, what car they were in, who they met, the location they met, the times – the times were very important – and I would keep that”.
It appears that he also took video footage of those under surveillance.
Was the surveillance illegal?
Mr Webb – who appears to be only one of a number of investigators employed by the “News of the World” – told Newsnight that there was “nothing illegal” in what he was doing. In reality, the position is not so straightforward. There are a number of legal wrongs which, potentially, can be committed by a person who follows others and makes records of their movements.
First, there is a potential claim for misuse of private information. A person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to many of the everyday activities which he or she engages in. Mr Webb describes following individuals into semi-private places such as hotels. Even where the surveillance takes place in public places privacy rights can often be engaged.Some information which can be gained from following someone is obviously private: as visits to the doctor or to the home of a lover. Even information about more mundane activities – who a person meets or where they shop – is potentially private. All this is information which an individual can reasonably expect is not going to be collated by someone working for a newspaper. The taking of photographs of a person in a public place can, in circumstances, infringe their privacy rights (see Murray v Big Pictures  Ch 481).