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Saturday 21st October, 2023 | Author: Secretariat | Filed under: Good practice policies

History & Future of Professional Investigations

History & Future of Professional investigation

Professional investigation, also known as professional detective work, has a long and storied history in the United KingdomDating back centuries, the profession has evolved significantly over time, with changes in the law, technology, and societal attitudes all playing a role in shaping the industry.

In this article, we will explore the history of professional investigations in the UK, from its earliest origins to present-day practices and the sector’s future.

Origins of Professional Investigation in the UK

The roots of professional investigation in the UK can be traced back to the 18th century when wealthy individuals would hire "thief-takers" to recover stolen property. These early investigators were not regulated, and often engaged in unethical and illegal practices, such as planting evidence or extorting payments from suspects.

In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution led to a rise in crime and a corresponding need for more effective law enforcement. This led to the establishment of formal police forces across the UK, and the decline of the thief-taker profession.

However, investigation in the private sector did not disappear entirely.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, professional detectives were often hired by businesses to investigate cases of fraud or other financial crimes. These early professional detectives were often retired police officers, and their work was largely focused on surveillance and gathering evidence.
Regulation of the Professional Investigation Industry

The professional investigation industry in the UK remains largely unregulated.

In 1905, the first licensing regime for professional investigators was established in London. However, this system was ineffective, and many investigators continued to operate without a licence.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was growing concern about the activities of some unscrupulous actors and the leading professional body, the Association of British Investigators (ABI) under its former name, lobbied parliamentarians for statutory regulation, but no system was ever put into effect.

By the 1990s the tabloid newspapers had established widespread use of unethical information gathering techniques using bad actors masquerading under the unprotected term ‘private investigators’. Matters came to a head in the mid 2000s with the exposure of the activities in what became infamously known as ‘phone hacking’ and the ‘dark arts’.

This was not before parliament had enacted The Private Security Industry Act 2001 in which investigations in the private sector was identified as a licensable activity; however, the Act has not been implemented.

In response to the phone hacking scandal, the government established the Leveson Inquiry, which concluded in recommending the Act be implemented by licensing investigation activities.

However, to this day the only credible form of regulation that exists for investigations in the UK is the self-regulatory regime in the voluntary membership of the Association of British Investigators.

Modern Professional Investigation Practices Today

Professional investigation firms in the UK offer a wide range of services, including background checks, surveillance, and fraud investigations.

Many professional investigators work for law firms, insurance companies, and corporations, while others focus on providing services to individuals.

Technology has had a significant impact on the professional investigation industry in recent years.

With the rise of social media and other online platforms, professional investigators are able to gather information about individuals more easily than ever before. However, this has also raised concerns about privacy, and there are strict regulations governing the use of surveillance equipment and the collection of personal data.

in addition, changes to legislation in recent years have also had an impact on the industry.

The introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018 has placed strict controls on the collection and use of personal data, which has made it more difficult for professional investigators to operate within the boundaries of the law.

Despite these challenges, there is still a demand for professional investigation services in the UK. Many individuals and businesses still require the expertise and experience of a professional investigator to gather evidence and provide legal support.

The Association of British Investigators is actively working with the data protection regulator to develop a UK GDPR code of conduct, designed to address the compliance problem and offer some protection to the public and users of investigation services.

Professional Investigation in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, professional investigation has become an increasingly sophisticated profession, with a range of advanced tools and techniques at its disposal.

Modern professional investigators use a wide range of tools to gather evidence and monitor the activities of individuals.

In addition, professional investigation firms are increasingly using data analytics and other advanced technologies to analyse large volumes of data and identify patterns and trends.

This enables investigators to uncover hidden connections and relationships between individuals, and to build a more complete picture of their activities and behaviours.

However, these technological advancements have also raised concerns about privacy and data protection.
The Future of Professional Investigation in the UK

Looking to the future, the professional investigation industry in the UK is likely to continue to evolve and adapt to new technological and societal trends.

With the rise of cybercrime and online fraud, professional investigators will need to develop new skills and techniques to investigate these types of civil wrongs and crimes.

In addition, the increasing use of machine learning is likely to have a significant impact on the industry, enabling investigators to analyse vast quantities of data and identify patterns and trends more quickly and accurately than ever before.

At the same time, there will be a continued focus on ethical and legal practices within the industry, and on ensuring that professional investigators operate within the bounds of the law and respect the privacy and rights of individuals.


In conclusion, professional investigation in the UK has a long and rich history, dating back centuries to the early thief-takers of the 18th century. Over time, the industry has evolved and adapted to changing societal and technological trends, and today it is a sophisticated but largely unregulated profession.

With a range of advanced tools and techniques at their disposal, modern professional investigators play an important role in helping individuals and businesses to navigate complex legal and financial issues.

The work of the ABI will hopefully achieve the data protection regulator’s approval of the proposed UK GDPR code of conduct to ensure that the work of the professional investigator is finally included in a state accredited form of self-regulation that will oversee participating professional investigators conduct their activities ethically and legally, and that the privacy and rights of individuals are respected.