Old-school investigative techniques have their place. But as PIs, we ignore technology at our peril.
I speak to a lot of investigators. Inevitably, we share “war stories,” tips and strategies about how we operate. Over the last several years, I have increasingly heard something that has disturbed me: Many PIs express a complete lack of interest in technology—the investigative Luddite, so to speak.
The Low-Tech (or No-Tech) Investigator
Several brilliant investigators, who are extremely close to me and whom I respect enormously, don’t have a clue about using technology—like when I recently tried sharing some documents on Dropbox and was met with utter confusion. (No, I will not start sending thumb drives to share files.) Or one investigator’s practice of only using hardwired Internet (and never using WiFi), which he explained made you immune to attackers and phishers. (It doesn’t.)
There is also an utter lack of awareness about capitalizing on the explosion of social media. More times than I like to admit, PIs have asked, “How do you find if someone has a Facebook page?” Or “Social media is completely useless because all it does it tell you what they ate for breakfast.” (Hint: In addition to what they are eating for breakfast, you can find millions of dollars worth of superyachts and private jets.)
Many PIs express a complete lack of interest in technology—the investigative Luddite, so to speak.
Jeremy Lee Pennington, a criminal defense investigator in Virginia, recently wrote, “One of the most disgusting aspects of the current for profit investigation industry is the total focus on public records, databases, and the internet in general.” He argued that “people” are what’s important, and investigating “people” requires “shoe leather.”
In fairness, the point the investigator was making is that in some investigations, a boots-on-the-ground approach is massively important. I’m sure that gathering human intel is an essential part of what Mr. Pennington does as a criminal defense investigator. But to argue that open-source research is “disgusting and unethical” ignores the fact that there are many varieties of investigation, and more than one “right” way to do things.
I can think of hundreds of situations where open-source research is vital, especially when your research is of a clandestine nature. (Human sources have mouths, which means that “discreet” inquiries and interviews can result in embarrassing blowback.) In such cases, interviewing subjects can potentially undermine your case.
That’s why most of the work I do is strictly researched-based: Often, I’m quietly looking into the backgrounds of big-time businessmen involved in some huge fraud or litigation case, and the attorneys don’t want it known that there’s an investigation going on.
All this is not to call out Mr. Pennington, but simply to point out that we all occupy different niches in the investigative field, often in isolation from our colleagues. But it’s worth remembering that ours is not the only way of doing things.
It’s not only about investigative methods. I’ve also witnessed heated discussions about the future of the industry. “The explosion of information on the web is killing my business” is something I’ve heard more than once. Trustify (*full disclosure: I am on the Board of Advisors), the investigation platform which aims to break down some barriers for people hiring a private investigator, has sparked controversy among PIs, some claiming that it’s going to “ruin the industry.” (It’s not. Investigators like these guys are doing a good enough job on their own.)
Other investigators have argued that you should “never hire an investigator without a face-to-face meeting.”
The idea that you need to meet an investigator before you hire them strikes me as something from a 1950s movie. In the six years I’ve had my business, I can count the number of new clients I’ve met face-to-face (prior to starting a case) on one hand. And when the client lives hundreds or thousands of miles away, an in-person meeting just isn’t practical.
This is a phenomenon I see again and again: a total certainty among many investigators that there is only one right way of doing things—their way. As an industry, we suffer from a perception problem already. And this kind of closed-mindedness does not help matters.
I think a little humility is in order in our industry. I don’t always assume that I’m doing things the best possible way. I’m constantly learning and trying to adapt. Of course, there are certain tried and true principles you don’t want lose sight of, but I would never want to ignore the next new tool, just because I’m too stubborn to change my thinking.
Getting Ahead … and Staying There
It amazes me how people hang onto the past. Even if you do have your foot in the door, you’re only good as your last case. Just last year, I was able to get a new client from a local law firm because their in-house paralegal was able to mine more information from social media than their previous investigative firm.
So to keep your foot in the door, you’ll need to make sure you’re putting your best one forward. You’ve got to keep learning. Don’t ever get stuck doing things how they’ve always been done, simply out of habit.
Nobody is stopping this technology wave.
And nobody is ever going to stop the future from coming.
It’s already here.
So, what should you do?
Forget everything you have learned? Of course not. But you do have to constantly adapt.
That means keeping an eye on Re-Code, Mashable, Wired, and ReadWriteWeb as much as you do Pursuit Magazine, PI Magazine and industry blogs. Pay attention to guys like Michael Bazzell and Justin Seitz who are at the forefront of open-source intelligence. Brian Krebs on security. Karen Blakeman on electronic resources for research. Glen Cathey, the “Boolean Blackbelt”, who leverages technology to find employees. And keep up on the newest interviewing techniques.
It means putting in the time and effort to understand new trends. It means downloading that new app and understanding how it can help your investigations. It means dedicating some time to learn about new technology that can make you a more efficient and professional investigator. Sometimes, it even means dedicating a few years to learn a new skill. (I am learning computer programming right now.)
If you want to continue doing things the way they have always been done, you’ll be left in the dust.
If you want to be a better investigator, you need to put in the work—not only to keep up, but to stay ahead.
Brian Willingham is a New York private investigator, Certified Fraud Examiner, and founder of Diligentia Group. To read more Willingham wisdom, check out his blog and his previous stories for PursuitMag.