Banks and insurers warned over use of tracking devices on customers' cars
Hundreds of companies in industries ranging from banking to insurance have been warned about the use of spy kits by private investigators, the Irish Independent can reveal.
In an unprecedented move, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has written to around 400 separate bodies in a bid to tackle the illegal use of so-called "tracking devices".
Assistant Data Protection Commissioner Tony Delaney has warned some of the country's most well-known firms that private investigators are attaching the devices to their customers' cars as part of covert surveillance activity.
Mr Delaney has told the 400 bodies, some of which are also State bodies, to put the private investigators "on notice" that they face potential prosecution.
He has also warned that in some cases, insurance companies have handed over full medical or consultants' reports to private firms that they pay to spy on customers.
The activities of private investigators, also known as 'tracing agents', have been the subject of a rigorous and lengthy investigation by Mr Delaney and his officials.
But the senior civil servant, who heads up the commission's investigations unit, has become increasingly concerned about the use of spy kits by investigators, which are placed underneath people's vehicles, often in the middle of the night.
Private investigation firms can buy vehicle tracking devices, many of which are small in size, for as little as €200.
The device is placed underneath a car, in virtually all cases unbeknown to the customer being tracked.
The signal from the device is then sent back to a mobile phone application, allowing the private investigator to trace the person's movements 24 hours a day. The file is then sent back to the company that availed of the investigator's services.
In most cases, the company may not be aware of the precise type of surveillance being used by the investigator.
Placing a device on a vehicle without the knowledge of the owner is in breach of data protection laws.
Contacted by the Irish Independent, Mr Delaney confirmed his letter was sent to firms in the sectors of banking, insurance, financial services, as well as credit unions and bodies in the local government sector.
"The purpose of this letter was, in the first instance, to alert them to the fact that some private investigators are attaching vehicle tracking devices to the vehicles of individuals on whom they are carrying out surveillance and secondly, to recommend actions that they should take in relation to it," Mr Delaney said.
"We strongly recommended that these entities should write to all private investigators that they currently use to put them on notice that the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has advised that such devices may only be used with the consent of the individual vehicle owner or driver who is the subject of surveillance (and) that the use of such devices without appropriate consent should cease immediately and should not be repeated."
Mr Delaney informed the companies that they reserve the right to report any suspected cases to his office or the Private Security Authority.
He anticipates a number of successful prosecutions in 2017.