This week, Ronan Farrow, the investigative reporter, published a three-part series (read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here) on the Israel-based “intelligence firm” Black Cube, whom Farrow had some run-ins with while exposing Harvey Weinstein.
It’s a pretty captivating story if you are into espionage, spies, surveillance, intrigue, counterintelligence, spooks, and snooping—or if you just have a pulse. ;)
This has been a huge personal interest story for me over the years that Farrow and others have been writing about Black Cube in part because of their shady tactics and Hollywood-style bravado. [I’d bet my life there will be a movie about them in a few years.]
Another point of interest is that I have personally spoken to Black Cube. While my discussions with them were completely cordial and above-board, I can recall pretty vividly how suspect I was of the firm, even from a few brief emails and telephone calls. In addition, I have had contact with a few other people mentioned in the story.
As a private investigator for nearly 20 years, I was at times shocked, partly saddened, but mostly captivated by the stories in the articles. I’ve already preordered Farrow’s book (you can order Catch and Kill here), as I am sure that will bring more shock and awe.
So, here are some observations.
“That Only Happens on TV”
Private investigators suffer from a perception problem (Hint: 95 percent of the people we polled think that private investigators break the law and are “shady.”) Despite discussing openly all of the things that our firm won’t do under any circumstances, we constantly get inquiries about those same things. We’ve been asked to break into an apartment and steal tax returns. We get asked frequently to hack into emails and get telephone records or the location of a cell phone.
Most of the time, I answer these inquiries with some form of “you have been watching too much TV. That’s just not reality.”
But then, Black Cube went and ruined that.
They used ruses, fake websites, false identities, cell phone tracking, and disguises. I get that this stuff happens in the high stakes game of world politics. Or arms dealing. Or drug lords.
But really? This happens in our industry?
But here is the reality.
I have worked with dozens of other firms in the industry. Some of the best and the brightest that this business has to offer. I’ve worked on cases that have been front cover of major newspapers.
Exactly zero of them would have used any of the tactics described in these articles.
So does one bad apple spoil the bunch? Sure.
But this is not an isolated incident…
An Industry in Desperate Need of Some Sunshine
There is an enormous amount of skepticism about the investigation industry. Frankly, it’s a reputation well-deserved.
I just posted a blog last week about three separate front-page news stories involving private investigators who use sketchy tactics. And there are a lot more stories of private investigators being sentenced for making false pretext calls to get personal banking information, a private investigator having sex with a prisoner, and scrutiny about private investigators receiving DMV data.
That was just in the month of September.
Back in May 2019, a former TV personality private investigator was jailed for promoting prostitution and unlawful surveillance for enticing a man into having sex with prostitutes at a Sunset Park hotel—and then surreptitiously recording the sex acts.
You just can’t make this stuff up.
As Cath (@drowsygeek) said on Twitter, our industry can use a whole hell of a lot of sunshine.
Yes, we can use a who lot of sunshine…and rainbows, butterflies and unicorns too.
If you hire a contractor to build you a house, at the end of the day, you expect a house to be built.
If you hire an accountant to help you file your tax return, you expect your taxes to be completed.
Or if you hire a software engineer to help you produce a piece of software, one would expect a piece of working software at the end.
But if you hire a private investigator to, for example, follow someone that you believe is meeting with some people that you might have an interest in, and you need to follow that person in a city of millions of people under difficult circumstances without being caught, lots of things can go wrong.
The surveillance investigator might lose the person they are following or get caught, or the target might go into a place where they can’t be followed, or simply not meet up with the people they are suspected of meeting. And what you might have thought would cost a few thousand dollars, ends up costing tens of thousands of dollars to do properly. And even done properly, everything might go to hell.
Each of those scenarios brings disappointment to the client.
So what do some investigators do to mitigate their failing results?
They might cheat by resorting to not-so-savory tactics. They might start putting GPS devices on the cars they are following (see stories here, here and here). Track cell phones. Try to hack a computer.
I’ve heard of surveillance investigators letting the air out of the tires of those collecting disability to see if they can change a tire.
There are private investigators who will pretext a bank by providing a Social Security number, date of birth, and other personally identifiable information to a bank to convince them that they are a particular individual in order to get their bank account information.
Investigators get judged by their results, not their efforts. But we don’t always have control over the results of our investigations.
It’s frustrating. Exhausting. Dispiriting.
Which brings out the cheaters.
Leave the Bonus Fees to Wall Street
One of the striking stories that came out of these articles was bonus fees tied to certain objectives. First, in New York, where we are licensed, “success fees” and bonuses are not allowed.
Success fees and bonuses encourage bias and behaviors that may not be aboveboard.
Imagine paying an investigator when he was able to come up with evidence that helped support his client.
What kind of biases and/or moral, ethical, and legal behavior do you think that would encourage?
If you ever hear of paying a private investigator suggesting a bonus, run.
There has been quite a bit of talk about whistleblowers over the past few years, and particularly recently.
This story would not have even been a story if it weren’t for at least two whistleblowers. One appears to be a Black Cube employee who was fed up with Black Cube’s “false and devious ways of obtaining material illegally” that the whistleblower, as a woman, was “ashamed for participating” in the acts by helping Harvey Weinstein.
The other is a New York private investigator who feared he was on the wrong side of the law.
These whistleblowers were motivated by professional ethics and faith in humanity. The reality is that whistleblowers shed light on pressing issues that directly affect all of us. Some call them leakers. Some believe they are disloyal, disgruntled, or even traitorous. Some question their motives.
To me, however, someone who is willing to risk everything to expose something so blatantly wrong is a freaking hero.
Hopefully it will shed some light on this business too.
Maybe I am naïve to think that this stuff doesn’t happen all the time.
Maybe I live in some idyllic world where the truth will always come out.
Or that reasonable people will always act ethically, morally, and within the law.
And maybe Black Cube is just eating up every bit of this press, since there are businesses who believe that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”
As for me, I hope that this story gives all of us in this industry a chance to take a hard look in the mirror.
Before it all crumbles around us.