Privacy Isn’t Just Digital: What I’ve Learned From Private Investigations
When you think about protecting your privacy, you are probably thinking about your Facebook data or text messages. However, as I learned while working for a private research company, most of us don’t quite understand how privacy works, how it transcends our browser history, or how vulnerable we truly are.
Several years ago I worked as a video editor for a private investigation company. I will not name the company or the place where she worked, but I will say that the company investigated claims for several large suppliers. Usually, if the insurance company thought someone was faking an injury, they would hire my company to find out if they were truly injured as they say.
I personally have never been involved in investigations, but have worked with dozens of investigators who have done so. I received their reports and raw videos, edited them down to the relevant parts, and sent them to our clients for review. This meant that I got an idea of how investigators work and what strategies they used to get information about people. Here are some lessons I’ve learned from hundreds of such cases.
You are not as knowledgeable about yourself as you think.
Snapchat was originally advertised as a safe way to share photos because they were immediately deleted and you couldn’t take a screenshot. People felt safe because everything they knew to watch out for had obviously been done. It didn’t take long for someone to break the illusion of security .
Often there is a very large gap between how you are safe, and by how safe you feel. But if you consider yourself smart because you were suspicious of Snapchat from the start, my experience of private investigations will quickly change my mind. The investigators I worked with were usually tasked with keeping track of objects for several days, documenting everything they saw. In the vast majority of cases, the subjects did not even notice .
Most of us would like to think that if someone followed us for a week, we would notice. But the truth is, most people wouldn’t do it. Our investigators followed the man a few cars back and then parked at the far end of the parking lot or across the street. Zoom lenses meant they didn’t have to be close to their subject. Sometimes they even parked near the facility. Few can distinguish a suspicious car from when a visitor arrived at a neighbor’s. Moreover, most researchers would use mirrors to record objects, so their vehicle was pointed away from the object. Even if the subject suspected that the car might not belong to him, he still would not suspect that the car was watching him, because he did not “look” at them. In short, if the investigator does not want his car to be noticed, most likely this will not happen.
Investigators generally avoided detection because no one expected a stranger to follow. Most of the people I’ve talked to since then don’t even know that insurance companies are sending investigators to see if anyone was really hurt. Since they don’t expect it, they cannot defend against it. Investigators (or crooks, or stalkers, or spying tomes) can take advantage of these blind spots.
This highlights a clear weakness in the way we protect our privacy: we can only protect ourselves from threats we know. We had known about the Patriot Act since 2001, but we were not aware of the nature of the threat the NSA poses to our privacy until 2013 . Relying on our ability to perceive threats before they happen makes us feel more invincible than we are. Since you cannot anticipate unknown threats, it is important to protect yourself from threats that you are aware of.
You are constantly transmitting information, even if you think you are not
Privacy issues existed before the Internet. I know it’s weird to think about it now, but there used to be a time when, if you wanted to protect your privacy, you would build a fence around your house instead of closing your Facebook account again. However, in our rush to discuss all the new ways to track or share our data, most of us forget that getting out of the house is all about broadcasting data.
We have already established that the investigator can probably follow you even if you do not notice it. But what do they learn from this? The reports and videos I dealt with gave a pretty clear picture of people’s lives. Here are just a few of what the investigators managed to find out in just a few days:
- Where are you going: Assuming the investigator can start with your home address (not difficult if the insurance company provides it), he can figure out where you work, where you shop, where your friends live, and where you spend time. And remember that location information also leads to other information. If you visit the bar four times a week, you can reasonably assume that you are an alcoholic.
- Who are you visiting: The company I worked for did not conduct personal investigations – say, if someone suspected their spouse of cheating – but if they did, it would be trivial to find out. You can delete all your text messages and hide your naughty photos, but if you visit your lover’s house every weekend, it’s easy to see what’s going on.
- What do you do (if you can be seen from the street): This is where my company earned most of its money. If a person claimed to have injured their lower back, but then jumped on a trampoline in the yard of their home, this information was immediately returned to the insurer. Typical photography rights rules apply to investigations as well. If they could see it, they could shoot.
Just by following someone for a few days, you can get a pretty good idea of their life. Some of them might be harmless (like going to Walmart), but there are certain things you might not want to report on an official report (like visiting an adult toy store). These reports were reviewed by me and other employees of the company, sent to the insurance company, and on very rare occasions could have entered the courtroom. This is a lot of people who could find out about your habits. If you do not want others to know about it, you may stay to order these sex toys online .
It is easy to come to the conclusion that one should never leave the house because someone might be watching. However, this is a pretty awful way of life. Instead, we need to change our understanding of what privacy is. Before the advent of the Internet, there was a fairly clear distinction between public and private: it was called the front door. If you want to protect your privacy, you close the door and lower the blinds.
In the modern world, everything is a little more complicated, but the principle is the same. When you protect your privacy, you need to consider how you broadcast information. Nobody will tell you that you cannot watch porn on the Internet, but they will give you tips on how to hide it . It’s the same in real life. If you do not want to be seen, do not do it in front of the public. Don’t think that you too will be able to see anyone watching.
Carelessness makes you vulnerable.
Every video I have ever edited at this company was accompanied by a report containing information about the person we were investigating. In many cases, some of this information was taken from the subject’s Facebook profile. The company I worked for used a fake Facebook profile, if necessary, to contact the subject and view their personal information.
This worked more often than it should, given that it depends on a Facebook friend request from an unknown person. We’ve talked a lot about how to protect your privacy on Facebook , but even if you haven’t read our guides, common sense dictates that adding someone you don’t know is careless. Most of us are taught from a young age to be suspicious of strangers. However, many subjects voluntarily provided additional information to the research company by simply clicking a button without a second thought.
Carelessness (or laziness) leads to a variety of privacy vulnerabilities. Blocking your Facebook to the public will do nothing if you accept friendship requests from strangers. Other people might use lazy passwords and PINs . Many people still don’t use two-factor authentication . A huge number of users don’t even lock their phone screen , let alone any other basic security features you should enable on your phone . Using a password manager is still more secure than using easy-to-remember passwords , but getting regular users to set them up is still not easy . All of these habits have two things in common: they protect you from basic vulnerabilities, and most people are too lazy, impulsive, or reckless to follow them.
Taking precautions to protect your data and your privacy is not a chore that computer nerds come up with to pester you. It is a habit that should protect you at all times. They must make sure that you don’t fall prey to common problems. The PIN code on the phone is not only intended to protect against foreign hackers. This will ensure that someone you know cannot view your private photos or messages. Blocking your Facebook profile helps ensure that a private investigation company cannot use your profile against you. Digital privacy is inseparable from the real world. This is the same as this.
More often than not, the investigations that my company conducted were only possible due to the negligence of the subjects they were investigating. While investigating a potential insurance fraud is relatively straightforward, these same people were just as vulnerable to stalkers, scammers, or themselves. Everything from accidentally sending confidential photos of ourselves to the wrong person to stealing your phone at a bar can, at least in part, be prevented with basic security measures that many of us refuse to accept. You don’t have to be paranoid to protect yourself. You just need to grasp the basics that are so often neglected.