In the February podcast of the excellent American Private Investigator, guest Peter Psarouthakis of ISPLA joked that the difference between a stalker and a private investigator carrying out surveillance was that the PI had a license. While this was meant as a joke, it did get me thinking about the difference between a stalker and a PI. If the only difference really were the fact that the PI held a license, it would be impossible for a licensed PI to be a stalker; yet, surely a licensed PI could be obsessed with and stalk one of his (or her) targets.
Instead of the license distinguishing between stalkers and PIs, the difference seems rather to lie in the intention of the observer. An observer who is watching someone on behalf of a third party and/or who receives no direct pleasure from the observation, strikes me as being a legitimate surveillant. By contrast, an observer watching someone for their own ends and who receives direct pleasure from the observation, seems to be a stalker.
So what good does a license serve? The license acts to confer authority on the PI. Authority can come from various directions. It can come from above (i.e. a boss promoting you at work), it can come from alongside (i.e. when friends don’t let friends drink and drive), or it can come from below (i.e. when the people elect the President). In the case of licenses for PIs the authority is coming from above, from the state legislature.
Alright, so the license is a demonstration that license holder has authority conferred upon him or her by the state. But what does that mean? It means that the license holder has demonstrated to the state a capacity to make responsible decisions in his line of work. He has met certain criteria, such as training and an exam, which the state feels are basic requirements to perform the job ethically. What are these requirements? Not being a legal expert, and being a Brit, I can only guess that they differ between states in the US (in the UK PIs are unlicensed). However, I believe they should conform to at least two guidelines.
The first of these is that the applicant should be an appropriate person to hold the license. They should not be a convicted felon, of unsound mind, or a known stalker! Anyone who fails to meet these guidelines is not an appropriate person to hold a license, and therefore should not be in possession of one.
The second of these guidelines is that the applicant should demonstrate that they understand the behaviour appropriate of a license holder. For PIs this would apply to, among other things, how information is handled. To put it bluntly, a PI who could not keep his mouth shut about the details of his cases would not be acting appropriately. Similarly, a PI who worked for both parties in a dispute would also be an inappropriate license holder.
The purpose of the license is therefore not to distinguish between a stalker and a private investigator, contrary to the joke shared on the API podcast. That difference comes from the intention of the observer. Instead, the license serves to ensure that the person practicing as a private investigator is an appropriate person for the role.
As with all good jokes, though, there is some truth in what Peter Psarouthakis said; a stalker would certainly be an inappropriate person, and therefore should not have a license. A licensed PI who stalked a victim shouldn’t remain a licensed PI for very long! However, as I hope I’d shown, the license does more than keep stalkers at bay. We can see this in states where no license is required (such as the UK), or whether holding of the license is voluntary (i.e. Colorado). In these cases there seems to be no way to tell whether a person acting as a PI is an appropriate person for the role in the ways I’ve suggested. And that is a worrying state to be in.
Kevin Macnish is a research student in Philosophy at the University of Leeds, where he is working on an ethics of surveillance. He responds this way to a lot of jokes.