The legality of using listening devices in the UK depends on several factors. While recorders for audio and video aren’t inherently illegal, it does depend on how we use them.
Let’s look at different types of listening devices and how we use them legally. We’ll examine some of the pitfalls we avoid. We’ll also give you some tips on identifying and getting rid of listening devices.
We came to know listening devices as bugs because criminals in the early 20th century referred to law enforcement as ‘bogeymen’. Any property protected by alarms or surveillance was said to be ‘bogeyed’, which was later shortened to ‘bugged’.
As spy bugs for audio recording became more common in the mid-twentieth century, rooms containing them were also said to be ‘bugged’. While the term fell out of usage in most contexts, it remained in the context of listening devices.
Bugs can be functional even if very rudimentary. All you really need for a working bug is a microphone, a radio transmitter, and a hiding place. More advanced bugs contain spy cameras, record audio, and even transmit audio to cloud storage.
Covert Listening Devices
A listening device is called ‘covert’ when it’s not immediately apparent that it contains a microphone.
If you look at any spy equipment site, you’ll find a wealth of listening and recording devices. Some might be quite crude, while others can be intelligently disguised.
Innocuous everyday items tend to make the best covers for listening equipment. A famous example is a recording pen, while other things that work well include clocks, wall outlets, and desk calculators.
GSM Listening Equipment
A special type of listening device uses the Global System for Mobile (GSM). GSM equipment operates on the standard mobile phone network and contains a SIM card.
Using GSM devices, the listener can place a call to the device and listen in real-time from their phone. More modern GSM equipment comes with smartphone apps, which the listener can use to listen to and record audio data from the device’s surroundings.
When Is it Legal to Use Listening Devices in the UK?
When used in public space, it’s legal to use listening devices, and, in general, we can do as we please with the recordings. In private areas, the legalities are a bit more complex.
If you’re the owner or legal occupier of a property, you can freely install listening devices there. The same goes for vehicles. One caveat to this is that landlords cannot put listening devices in their leased property, as this would constitute tenant harassment.
If you’re not the property owner and you don’t have permission, it’s usually illegal to plant listening devices. The only people in the UK who can use listening devices like this would be law enforcement and government intelligence agencies. Still, they must go to the necessary lengths to demonstrate that it’s justified.
It’s legal to record phone calls and live conversations between you and another person. However, it would be best to be mindful that you could still break the law by improperly using these voice recordings.
Data Protection Laws
Using recordings for personal use is legal. For example, if you placed a listening device in your own home to catch your partner cheating, then you would not be breaking any laws.
If the recordings are to be used for any commercial purposes whatsoever, the subject of the recording must give their consent. Likewise, if someone wants to record any elements of the conversation in a database for sale to advertisers, they must also have your consent.
Getting Rid of Listening Devices
There’s a wide variety of listening devices available to the public, as well as instruments purporting to be detection equipment. While some are perfectly legitimate solutions, you should be wary that others are no better than snake oil.
As private investigators, we have a range of functional bug-detection equipment. Hiring our services for counter-surveillance would cost around the same as buying the equipment outright.
By hiring a private detective to conduct a bug sweep, you’ll find that it’s as cost-effective as performing the sweep yourself, and it’s far more likely to be successful. We’ve found dozens of bugs over the years, so we know what to look for when conducting a sweep.