Confessions of a Private Eye

In the beginning of my career, surveillance meant staking out subjects's houses in a van; by the end, it meant simply searching on Google or Facebook.

“Investigator maintained visual contact of the subject.”

I became a private investigator in the 80s. When I started out, I had a pair of binoculars and a 35mm Pentax SLR with a zoom lens. I sat in the back of my surveillance vehicle with no connection to the outside world. No cellphone. No Internet. There was nothing to do except watch, listen to the radio, and think.

I thought about what would happen if someone needed to reach me. I was a single mother with two young sons. I thought about the person I was investigating. Were they really doing whatever it was someone else was willing to pay a large sum of money to catch them doing? Were they exaggerating or faking an injury from a car accident, cheating on their spouse, or skipping work while they had been on a bender? What if they truly were criminals who had stolen product from a transport truck?

Every morning, while most people were still sleeping, I left my children with the babysitter and drove to a different part of the city, a suburb, or out of town. From outside my subject’s houses, I watched as lights came on and people got ready to start their day. I made it through days so hot you wouldn’t leave a dog in your car, and so cold that frost formed on the windows as I shivered in my down parka. If a subject lived in an apartment building, I got someone to let me in and hung out in the stairwell or hallway. I usually knew if the subject had a car because I had access to vehicle registration information.

If there was no activity after four hours, I drove to a phone booth and used a pretext to find out if the subject was home and if they were going out. This was also a good time to relieve myself, or get a coffee.

For 27 years, I worked as a private investigator. In that time, I went from long stakeouts in vans to rummaging through my subject’s digital information. Eventually, I had to quit.

I got my first cellphone as soon as I could afford one, in 1986. The Motorola DynaTAC (nicknamed “the brick” by users) cost a few thousand dollars and the phone bill was, on average, $500 a month, but it connected me with the world. It gave me peace of mind, because my children could reach me.

But what technology giveth it also taketh away. Now that I could call from the van, I had no excuse to leave my post. There went my bathroom and coffee break. I had to use something much less technologically advanced: a female urinary collection device.

In 1987, I got a pager and a monster VHS video camera. Then, the camera that weighed heavily on my shoulder was replaced by a Sony Handicam. I could videotape from farther away, even at night. I had pinholes cameras that I could wear on my lapel or put in my purse. All this made life safer for me, because there was less likelihood of being caught. I could watch from further and further away.

I shadowed people. Most of them had routine lives that revolve around work, home, socializing, and shopping. Their routines became mine. If the subject went shopping for plastic bins at Walmart, I also looked at plastic bins and caught them on camera. If they went to a bar, so did I. In church, I prayed that they wouldn’t discover that I was an outsider. I watched people get married. I brought flowers to hospital rooms. I invaded and inspected lives and dissected them in my report accompanied by visual evidence. I drew the line at going to funerals.

Most of the work of private investigators is investigating insurance claims that an adjuster suspects are fraudulent. How they decide to suspect people I don’t know. I’d guess the adjusters decide this through some kind combination of personal bias and data. Many of my subjects were people of color or new immigrants or lived in social housing. Some of them were scamming, to be sure, but so were the people in the middle or upper class I observed. I witnessed movie-like scenes where a person comes out of their doctor’s appointment and doffs their cervical collar, or stops using their cane when they think no one is watching.

Sometimes there was nothing to find. I wondered if I had missed something, or compromised a person’s privacy without reason. I wondered which was worse. While watching the subject, I was also capturing their friends, family, and neighbors on video. My superiors, colleagues, and the clients wrote that off as collateral damage in the search for truth or justice.

No one ever suspected that the ordinary woman knocking on their apartment door asking them to sign a petition was trying to get an ID from their signature and videotaping them with a hidden camera. When I spoke to them, they became a person. We chatted about the weather. I could smell the food they were cooking wafting out the door or see that they were watching The Young and the Restless which I was going to watch when I was finished spying on them.

After 16 years of sitting scrunched up in a car or van for hours, I transitioned to a different side of investigations, gathering a different kind of information. I conducted discreet or open inquiries, located missing people, and conducted background checks on individuals or due diligence investigations on corporations. I spent a lot of my time scrolling through microfiches at public libraries and government offices. I followed paper trails. Before the Internet, call display, encryption, and passwords, I gathered information over the phone through social engineering and pretexts. I found out how much a person had in the bank and how much they owed to creditors, where they worked and how much they made.

Most people are too trusting and plenty are lonely. If you sound interested, they will talk. If you sound confused, they will try to help you out by providing information. I used the anonymity of the phone to my advantage. When call display started making my life difficult, I discovered spoof calling, which provided the ability to input any number onto call display. It made my pretexts even more effective when I was calling from XYZ Courier, or any fake company I could imagine.

Every technological advance that made it easier for me to do my job made me deliriously happy, like the day that I first accessed the Internet and discovered AltaVista. When Google came into being, I whispered that word like it was a lover’s name. Google, oh, Google. It was my mantra.

New digital gifts were coming my way all the time. And the Holy Grail was Facebook. My joy was off the charts. I was a young guy with an interest in vintage muscle cars. I was an older woman with a lot of cats. I was anyone I thought the subject would want to be friends with on my fake profiles. Selfies and the sousveillance culture was a boon to our industry. The subjects’s own information was doing them in.

Google Maps! A bird’s eye view of the subject’s house. Google Street View—I was standing outside their home without even being there and while I was doing that, a copy of their land registry and mortgage was coming through my computer.

But as easy as it had all become, it wasn’t rewarding. It was never rewarding. I didn’t like spying on people. Many of the investigators I worked with had a hunter mentality. It’s easier to view someone as a target when you can’t relate to them. I wanted to see the subject as human and to know who they were and why they lived the way they did. But most of all, I wanted to do something else. I wanted to be a writer. In January 2011, I hung up my hat and my trench coat to focus on my true passion. I don’t write detective fiction, although this is the first question everyone asks me.

Of course, technology has continued to change spying. I talked to a few friends in the industry this week and asked if they were considering using drones. They are excited about the possibility. Legislation doesn’t keep pace with technology, so there are grey areas in that blue sky. A private investigator cannot observe you in any place you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try. Years ago, a colleague followed a subject to a nudist colony and got video of the subject and others playing volleyball. Everyone in the office watched that video.

And the march of technology has also brought it into the hands of people who aren’t professional investigators. People can purchase GPS trackers and put tiny cameras inside teddy bears. You can put layers of surveillance between you and your babysitter, your wife, or the delivery person who is captured on your CCTV system. You can install a keystroke logger on your computer to see if your partner is sending love letters to someone else. I know because I did that. Yes, he was.

Most of the people who do this work don’t care about you or your privacy. Most of the people being surveilled don’t know how to protect their personal information. And most of investigating bodies don’t care. You are just data. And even if you are doing nothing wrong, you’re just collateral damage in the search for the “truth.”

I want to say I am done. I helped many people get the information they needed to make decisions about their lives or their businesses, but in doing so I devalued myself. While focusing my camera on others, I blurred my own definition of right and wrong. I was a licensed liar and a snoop. It’s a judgmental, and soul-destroying world. From now on, I’ll stick to reading Raymond Chandler and sign off with the words I used in every investigation report: “Surveillance discontinued."