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Future Private Investigator

It’s pretty safe to say that the private investigator of the future is going to be doing business much differently than the ones who are working today. While I may not own a crystal ball, current trends point to a future that looks very different.

Here are some of my predictions.

Consolidation/Strategic Partnerships

There are a lot of lone wolves, or small investigative firms, out there. I don’t have the numbers to back this theory; this is just based on my personal experiences.

An industry dotted with solo operators can take you only so far. If this business is going to grow and thrive, there must be some consolidation.

We have already seen this in the works. Just a few months ago, Westview Capital Partners invested in the James Mintz Group. There are some rumors swirling that there may soon be other consolidations and investments as well.

While we may not have a “Walmart of private investigations,” we may see more strategic partnerships where firms with specific skill sets can complement each other and operate independently yet cohesively to offer a wide variety of services.

More White Collar

Since Jules Kroll, founder of Kroll and the father of the modern corporate investigations industry, the private investigation business has gained more of a white-collar reputation. That trend continues today.

Why does this trend continue? In part because that is where the money is. Multinational corporations and international law firms have deep pockets and wealthy clients. Where there is money, there is opportunity.

Things such as internal investigations, strategic intelligence gathering, white-collar criminal defense, corporate criminal defense, anticorruption investigations, monitorships, corporate litigation support and reputational due diligence will continue to replace the old gumshoe work focused on cheating spouses, disability insurance claims, surveillance, workers’ compensation investigations and child custody cases.

Increased Privacy Restrictions

From the government monitoring the emails of ordinary citizens to Google tracking your every move to the legality of using drones, privacy has become a hot-button issue. If you ever have a conversation at a cocktail party about the information an investigator can obtain, you will hear equal amounts of surprise and outrage.

But as technology has become more advanced, the laws and regulations surrounding it have barely changed. My bet is that there will be federal laws drafted on the use of GPS devices to track individuals. And drone usage for things like surveillance will be illegal (don’t laugh — a Long Island, New York, private investigator and a California private investigator are already touting them).

It wouldn’t surprise me if the information that investigators can access readily (e.g., Social Security numbers, dates of birth and address histories) disappears as well.

Less Gumshoe

The stealthy quick-witted old gumshoe is a dying breed. It’s not because the information that can be obtained from “boots on the ground” isn’t valuable — it’s just not a particularly effective method of gathering information when you consider the other ways of doing things.

Like mining Facebook and Twitter for witnesses to an accident instead of spending days knocking on doors.

Or going door-to-door to conduct face-to-face interviews when you can interview someone on the phone from halfway across the country.

Or gathering details of a person’s activities by monitoring social media instead of conducting days of surveillance.

What that means is that being the “local” investigator doesn’t matter all that much.

I don’t think the old gumshoe methods of face-to-face interviews, going door-to-door looking for witnesses or conducting all-night stakeouts will ever disappear, but these methods are certainly becoming more of an afterthought rather than a go-to method of gathering information.

Technology-driven

Less gumshoe work means more technology. These days, you can find more information about a person in 10 minutes behind a computer than in days or weeks of investigation using the standard methods of as little as 15 years ago.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of data points that one can use to gather information from public records, open source intelligence and social media. As it stands today, there are a lot of manual processes that need to happen. And try finding patterns in these various data points without the help of a supercomputer.

But what if you had tools that can spit out patterns and connections from varying data sets? Like Google on steroids. That is already in the works. Memex, which was developed by the government, is effectively a search engine on steroids, which can search for things like the latitude/ longitude coordinates, embedded in photos and spot relationships

Commoditization

Every service industry has had to fight the battle of a highly specialized skill of a professional turning into another commodity. For example, web sites such as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer have made many simple legal services like wills, trusts and contracts accessible to nearly everyone. In our industry, competition for surveillance services is based primarily on price. Background checks have become a commodity too.

Some may argue that commoditizing a professional service is doomed for failure, but that won’t stop anyone from trying to disrupt an industry. FlimFlam is a startup that just raised $1 million for an app providing on-demand private detective services.

Will the services of a private investigator turn into just another commodity? Probably not completely, but my guess is that it will likely remain a force for the foreseeable future.

The Crystal Ball

So there you have it. Six ways I think the business will change in the coming years.

What does your crystal ball tell you?

I want to give a special thanks to Renee A. Cervo of Fact Quest who asked for me to contribute a piece to the California Association of Licensed Investigators Newly Licensed Investigator Training and Education class on the “The Future of Private Investigation.”

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6 replies
  1. Shawn Schooley
    Shawn Schooley says:

    As many of the comments have alluded to, I think this discussion will hinge on what investigative specialty areas you are considering. Some are labor and time intensive (e.g., surveillance) whereas some are almost “mail money” propositions (e.g., database only background investigations).

    Corporate investigations are the largest potential financial growth specialty area. They are the one-stop-shopping outlets like a Walmart (one client/corporation with lots of different investigative services to be sold).

    A more systematic assessment of the post:

    1. Consolidation/Strategic Partnerships – I don’t think will gain much traction just looking at the stats and the predicted trends.

    2. More White Collar – Yes (see above); however, only for those PIs who decide to invest in and carry insurance in states that don’t require it by law for their PI businesses.

    3. Increased Privacy Restrictions – I agree that legislation will eventually catch-up and regulate these new technologies in re the issue of privacy. There is quickly mounting case law that is beginning to sharpen the parameters. Although, the standard here will essentially remain the same: What does a reasonable person think relative to that community’s standards is a violation of privacy?

    As a digression here, I know a fairly well-known PI who was bragging to me about using GPS in a legal “gray” area and has been fighting a lawsuit in court…the voice in my head just keep screaming at him that if he is spending thousands of dollars in a legal battle he has already lost; once the attorneys get involved it is like a knife fight, and nobody wins a knife fight.

    4. Less Gumshoe – I agree in part. There are somethings though that cannot be “ungumshoed.” “Occasionally, we have to outwork the criminals” – Sherlock Holmes. Far more likely will be the trend in the future of the field toward ever more professionalization and increased ethics. It’s not the gumshoe per se that is the dying breed rather the unethical, unprofessional gumshoe.

    5. Technology-driven – Yes. But the technological tool is only as good as its user. Matching the appropriate tool to the appropriate task is still going to be the greater issue as well as when to optimally employ said tool/technology.

    6. Commoditization – I don’t see this being too successful in the future. Ultimately, quality control will become too big of an issue and then more bureaucratization will have to be applied to enhance efficiency which will lead to bureaucratic goal displacement and rigidity; consequently, the level of art and creativity necessary to be a successful PI will suffer and the larger business and the fields’ commodification endeavors will fail.

    Again, my crystal ball suggests increased professionalization and morality.

  2. Craig Henry
    Craig Henry says:

    Hi Brian,

    As your article was discussing broadly the role of technology in investigations, I thought this might be relevant to some of your readers who are investigators that collect intelligence. I thought they might be interested in reading about some new web based case management software I have developed for myself called Int Graph. I am considering further developing the software to support multiple users and opening it up for others to use. If you’d like to read a little about the software and express your interest in being one of the first to gain access, please check out http://intgraph.com

  3. Adam T. Lilienfeld
    Adam T. Lilienfeld says:

    Brian, as usual you have interesting insights. Yes, our tools change and to stay competitive we must adopt and adapt. The mistake that so many people make is that they confuse the tools that we use, with us. Someone discovers or changes a tool we use and for a time (can be years) you get what appears to be commoditization. But in reality it’s not, they are frequently misrepresenting what they actually do. Hence, the huge FTC fines against the larger players in the On-line Background Check industry or the lawsuit against the on-line Nanny Check firm where the child was killed by the nanny or the issues Uber has had with their background checks. No doubt there will be a market for an App like FlimFlam but likewise surveillance is not a commodity it’s a tool that not everyone can master nor the planning that goes into it, nor the requisite equipment. It’s really hard to cry on the shoulder of an App nor will an App be able to defuse a client who has flown into a rage and prevent them from doing something rash. It will pick off some of the low hanging fruit, but it won’t up-end the surveillance industry.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      From personal experience, I see a lot of commoditizing going on. Surveillance margins have been pretty minimal for years. I have seen insurance firms not willing to pay more than a few thousand dollars for an investigation of a multi-million dollar life contestable insurance claim. And I have seen background investigations that could be marketed for thousands of dollars to Investment firms, that are half of that.

      I don’t think everything will end up being a commodity, but there will need to be some adaptation.

  4. David Childe
    David Childe says:

    I agree with many of these well-reasoned points in Brian’s article, but not all. As long as our clients largely remain law firms, which are local in nature, our business will stay mostly local. The non-local business will increasingly be the commodity surveillance business subcontracted by third party brokers working for insurance companies. I avoid that like the plague – as should most investigators who actually want to make a decent living.

    Licensing requirements – like them or not – also guarantee that our business will stay local or at least regional. I cannot legally work any cases/assignments that originate in states other than my own. Even with a reciprocal licensing agreement, which only allows me to work temporarily in another state, the case/assignment must still originate in my home state.

    Where I am in near total agreement with Brian is the technology aspect and how that impacts the profession. For one, it does minimize the need for surveillance. I am not a fan of surveillance and oftentimes view it as waste of money and an area rife with abuse. I get so much more so much faster by interviewing neighbors/ex-employees/ex-spouses etc. and by a deep social media search than I get on a long surveillance assignment.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      I don’t think that being a local investigator matters much less than it used to. Most of my clients have never met me and has come from as far as Pakistan. While there will always be licensing, with technology, I can work from nearly anywhere and for most of my cases be as effective from anywhere in the world.

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