Eyes on the Spies: How far can private Investigators Go?
Published in The Australian: 16 August, 2014
Original source: http://archive.is/5ZqXX
IT’S 7am on a Saturday morning and the car pulls to a stop. “There’s a pillow in the back,” Jesse “S” turns to me and says. “You might want to make yourself comfortable.”
The minutes pass. Our car slowly cools and the interior temperature regains equilibrium with the frigid winter morning. We’re here to look for any sign of life from number 17. Inside is a man suspected of hamming up a gammy leg, trying to outstay his welcome on WorkCover. Jesse is a private investigator (PI) and I’m here to delve into this hidden world. His camcorder is ready and waiting, with emphasis on the waiting. It’s two hours before anything happens. A woman drives out of the driveway — the claimant’s mother, perhaps. The camcorder records. Ten minutes later, the car returns. For the next four hours, nothing. Jesse recounts the salient facts into his dictaphone, then turns and says, “I think we’ll call it a day.”
For all their snooping into other people’s business, most PIs are loath to have someone snooping around them. I’m told by one (who won’t give me his name) that I’ll be lucky to find anyone who’ll give me the time of day. Why? “The nature of the industry,” he says, evasively. I call another in Perth. He says he can’t talk. Why? “Legal reasons.” What legal reasons? He hangs up. Desperate, I reach for the phone book and call a private investigations company with the most respectable sounding name I can find, but the weary voice down the line from “Flingbusters” refuses to help.
Luckily, not all PIs are as shy. I arrange to meet one of Melbourne’s successful private investigators, Julia Robson, who heads a company called Online Investigations. The day before our meeting I give her some homework over the phone. I want her to find out everything she can about me. I tell her nothing is off-limits. I want to know how hard (or easy) it is to access information about a person using only the internet. Before setting this task I change every password I can think of. I take my house off Google Street View. I update my Facebook privacy settings to the strictest possible. I minimise my digital footprint to near zero.
The next day I meet Robson in a cafe. She produces a sly smile, followed by a notebook filled with scribbles. Suddenly I get a bit worried. I have good reason to be: what she reveals will leave me speechless.
Unlike Twitter, private investigators don’t send you alerts to let you know you’re being followed. If you’ve ever been off work due to an injury, or received compensation for a road accident, chances are you’ve been followed by one. So how far are PIs allowed to go in their covert surveillance of your life?
Actually, they have no more powers than you or me. They are not privileged to any information not legally obtainable by the public. Neither are they required to undertake professional development or show any real evidence of their competency. In fact, for around $1000 you could become a licensed private investigator in a couple of days. Simply complete a short course, take your certificate to the state police and receive your licence.
An image of swagger and a cavalier attitude towards due process haunts the profession: in the popular imagination it’s a lucrative refuge for disgraced ex-cops, or a fantasy world for star-struck loners with visions of grandeur. It’s been romanticised in pop culture ever since Raymond Chandler gave the world Philip Marlowe. Its real-world image hasn’t been helped by a history of unscrupulous operators committing crimes and swindles time and time again.
There are very few books on becoming a private investigator. One of the most comprehensive, also used as the training manual in many courses, is Behind the Private Eye — Surveillance Tales & Techniques, by Australian PI Chris Cooper. I was interested to learn if the book reinforced the stereotype of the shifty, voyeuristic, garbage-rummaging gumshoes. The answer appears to be a resounding yes. Cooper likes to get his hands dirty. “Garbage bins can be a goldmine of information,” he confirms. He also gives sage advice, perfect for beginners: “Identify which night is bin night.” If approached by someone while conducting a bin search, Cooper recommends reciting this script: The bitch threw her engagement ring in here; it bloody cost me an arm and a leg! If you’ve got a problem with it, why don’t you give me a hand?
Cooper’s book is full of tales from his days on the job. From picking through garbage to hiding behind flowers to, inevitably, sitting in a car for hours. Cooper deals with the delicate issue of emptying one’s bladder in a mobile workplace. “The choice of urine bottle is important,” he writes, adding: “Stopping midstream is never satisfactory.” Apple juice bottles get the tick from Cooper, their two-litre capacity and authenticity of colour being big selling points.
Back in the cafe, Julia Robson smooths out her notes and takes a deep breath. “Let’s start in 1978.” She’s about to dish out the dirt on me.
The first thing Robson gives is the address in the small New Zealand town where my parents were living two years before I was born. She has my parents’ full names. “Your dad was a carpenter and your mother was a teacher.” I listen in silence as she continues recounting my family history. She tells of my mother moving to Auckland, then Wellington; that she registered as a solo mother while my father ended up in a small NSW town. She tells me who and when my dad remarried. She names my partner, her job and gives the address of the house we bought, the date we bought it, the price we paid and the bank that loaned us the money. She then describes our house, beginning at the front door and going through all the bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, everything. She tells me the date it was broken into, the method of entry and what was stolen. “If I was a burglar,” she says, “I would know what sort of stuff you have in your house and the best way to get it.”
Robson tells me my son’s name, age, the school he attends, the fact I coach his soccer team. She knows the sports teams I support, my political views and hobbies. Embarrassingly, she reminds me of the spectacularly unsuccessful rock band I’ve done time with, and names our former drummer, who she says mysteriously quit in 2007, adding that he might be a useful source to get the good oil on me.
Anything else? “I know you have an internet account with TPG, that you use a Mac computer and that you used Wikipedia to find me.” I did? More embarrassment.
“Before you walked in the door I knew what you looked like, who your good friends are, what they look like — your whole backstory. From here I could conduct surveillance on you and work out your daily routines. I could strike up a conversation because I know what sports teams you support, for example. Getting you to divulge more information is all about making you feel comfortable talking to me.”
I was floored by how much information there was about me on the internet for anyone savvy enough to know where to look. But what was equally revealing was the information that Robson wasn’t able to find out. She didn’t know my date or place of birth. She had no information about bank records, income or emails. She wasn’t able to find any record of previous or current employers, and of course police, medical and vehicle registration records were off-limits. Knowing the house my parents lived in 36 years ago was a cute trick, but it wouldn’t help her steal my identity or money, or do anything that could seriously hurt me.
I have a surprise for Robson as well. Prior to our meeting I had dug up some gossip I thought she’d be keen to hear. It’s nothing serious, but it’s enough to spike her interest in the source. She wants me to reveal. I can’t say. I’m interested to see what techniques she uses to try to get me to blab. Her whole demeanour changes. She giggles like a schoolgirl. She strokes my ego by appearing genuinely shocked that I found this information. She curls a finger through her hair, disarming me, putting me at ease in the conversation. We could be on a date, or perhaps a couple of besties on the school bus. “Now you have to tell me!” She giggles again. Amid the flirtatious entreaties to confide I can feel myself going to pieces.
Robson, like many PIs, began as a cop. She worked in Auckland and London before founding her Australian business. Her police background has served her well, she says. “It’s really hard to work full-time as a private investigator. There’s no requirement for ongoing training once you’ve got your licence, so unless you’ve got a really good skill set to begin with you’re going to find it difficult.”
The going rate for a PI is $60-$100 an hour, while those with specialist skills such as fraud, forensics or risk assessment can see their hourly rate soar to $150-$300. So the public has every right to expect they will conduct themselves with integrity, and within the law. Robson stresses the importance of doing things by the book.
“It’s illegal for police to give information about people to private investigators,” she says. “In the old days [PIs] would just call in a favour from their copper mates. Times have changed now. These days the skill of a private investigator is working out how to get that information via open source techniques. I’m very aware of the things I have to do to abide by the law.”
Robson wants the industry cleaned up, by weeding out dodgy operators and tightening the regulations. “Because it’s so easy to get a licence there’s no accountability regarding the type of people coming into the industry. There are investigators who are up on identity theft charges who are still operating. There are investigators up on drug charges who are still advertising their services for surveillance on parents suspected of child abuse.”
There’s also little recourse available to people who have a complaint against a PI. Approaching the licensing body of the state police is an option, although even when licences are revoked operators can trade under a different company name. The double-edged sword is that PIs want more powers but would not be accountable for misuse of those powers.