On Sunday, the New York Times reported that Ikea has been “spying” on its French employees between 2002 and 2012, and had paid more than €475,000 to private investigators for things such as “vetting of job applicants” or “efforts to build cases against employees accused of wrongdoing.”
The article goes on to report that the case has caused “public outrage” amongst Ikea’s employees and French consumers for privacy reasons.
Upon first glance at the article, I was a bit perplexed.
Wanting to check up on job applicants and wanting to investigate employees for misconduct is a perfectly legitimate reason to hire a private investigator. It is not only prudent to vet potential employees to make sure they are not lying about who they say they are, but I also think most employees would want to know if they were working next to someone who was charged with abusing children or had a history of violence.
And, of course, a company has the legal right to investigate its employees for possible misconduct, fraud or wrongdoing. Workplace fraud is rampant, and if you think one of your employees is committing fraud, why wouldn’t you have the right to investigate those claims?
But there is an invisible line, and in this case, that line was totally crossed.
People should be outraged.
And as a private investigator, I am outraged.
The article reported that private investigators obtained the dates of one employee’s flights from “outside sources,” details of personal bank account information and, most startling, scanned images from one former employee’s passport, obtained after someone posed as an airline worker and persuaded the employee to fax copies of her passport to claim a free ticket offer.
Any ethical investigators who have a backbone and a pulse and are worth their weight in salt would NEVER do anything of the sort.
The same investigators who would do this sort of thing would probably claim that they weren’t breaking any laws (an argument I have heard from several investigators).
“There is no law that says I can’t pretend to be someone else and get their passport information,” a rogue investigator might say.
They might be right. In the U.S., pretexting (obtaining information under false pretenses) is illegal only when it pertains to acquiring financial information from consumers or financial institutions. That’s it. There are laws prohibiting “deceptive practices,” but these laws have broad definitions.
So would it be illegal in the U.S. to pose as an airline worker and persuade an employee to fax copies of her passport to claim a free ticket offer?
Probably. Frankly, I don’t know for sure. The answer is not really clear-cut, but it doesn’t really matter to me. It’s not something I would ever do. I wouldn’t even entertain the idea. Neither should any other investigator. Period.
Many issues are black and white for private investigators.
But somewhere in between, there is a huge, undefined grey area, an area that is visited far too often.
My motto is that even a whiff of any unscrupulous behavior might undermine a client’s best interest, my reputation and my license.
Maybe other investigators should be mulling over these same things.