Most private investigators, whether they are working insurance fraud, worker’s compensation, child custody, or cheating spouse cases, know that a significant amount of our work is surveillance. This means long, grueling hours sitting in a vehicle, watching a house or a vehicle, waiting to capture something useful on video. Will this approach be the same in the near future?
Since the North American International Auto Show is coming to a close in a few days, I thought I’d take a moment to write up a few of my thoughts on the future of surveillance based on the “tech tussle” and “mobility shift” that was on full display at the show. Google’s self-driving car division's push into the auto market, Uber’s ongoing development of self-driving cars, and cities’ growing partnerships with automakers highlight that the future of transportation may belong to robots that navigate smart grids tapped into the Internet of Things (IofT).
What will this mean for private investigators? Well, a lot. Some changes will be good for us, some bad. Here’s a list of three changes and what they may do to surveillance practices and the PI business. This is not a comprehensive list, so share your own in the comments.
#1: Ride Share
As many investigators already know, following people is a bit more challenging now that folks are using ride share apps like Uber and Lyft. When an out-of-state client hires me to follow a spouse flying in for a conference or business meeting, I’m not sure if the person picking him or her up at the airport in a private car is a potential target of the surveillance or just a driver (the cars aren’t always properly marked). Following someone to a busy downtown area or to a special event can also be challenging because a surveillance target may be dropped off while I have to park. It’s always much easier to follow a person from their own personal vehicle. Where they park, I park.
But when they are dropped off by a driver and I must find parking, this means losing the target. One workaround, of course, is to have two investigators in a single vehicle. This is expensive for the client. Another workaround for me has been to partner with Uber and Lyft drivers in the area. Sometimes I get lucky and drivers I know actually pick up the target. Since this is a great pretext, our driver sometimes gets valuable information that is useful in the case. Other times, our Uber and Lyft partners help us follow another Uber or Lyft car. (Just like in the old days when you’d jump in a cab and proclaim, “Follow that vehicle, Jack!”) This strategy has allowed me to be just as mobile as the target. So let’s call this a win-lose change, especially since for the more entrepreneurial among us will possibly investment in this opportunity. Consider purchasing an extra vehicle and then rent it to your part-time investigators. This will allow them to drive for Uber and Lyft on the side when the PI-side of the business is slow.
#2: Autonomous Driving Vehicles
The same benefits and challenges noted above will exist as ride share drivers are replaced by robots, particularly when it comes to using your own autonomous vehicle during a surveillance and the person being followed chooses an autonomous driving taxi.
When it comes to actually following a surveillance target, however, the job is likely to get easier and safer: “Robot mobile, follow that robot car!” Of course, this works only if the other vehicle doesn’t get programmed to inform its occupants of other vehicles’ activities: “Mrs. Jetson, the vehicle behind us is following.” Savvy investigators will figure out how to get around these unforeseen issues, which will be marketed as safety features. More immediately, though, I think people will increasingly become distracted in their vehicles as they have less need to focus on the road. They will talk, text, watch videos, conduct business, and so on. They will have less need to pay attention to other vehicles on the road or their surroundings. This will make it easier, not harder to follow someone.
#3. Vehicles Tapped into the IoT
This change is likely to be the biggest disrupter for the private surveillance industry. Of course, what ultimately happens in the legal and regulatory environment is going to determine whether this is an industry killer. Some will likely say that people will no longer have a need for private investigators in Internet-of-Things (IoT) age, since spouses, companies, courts, and so on will be able to better track and monitor people without human intervention. For example, if a refrigerator can talk to your car to remind you to pick up milk, the car can talk back to the fridge (or more generally your house or company), keeping tabs on occupants’ whereabouts as the various machines (including phones and other mobile devices) talk with each other. "Your husband is at your best friend Sheila's house. You wanted to remind you to pick up your scarf from her. Should I text him this reminder for you?." (Thanks Alexa [Okay Google, Siri, Cortana], but why is he at Sheila's?)
Of course, some similar apps already exist for mobile devices that allow tracking and Facebook was supposed to let spouses more easily detect cheating without the help of an investigator. But my business in this area has increased, not decreased. People have more opportunities than ever to meet new people for affairs (they get reintroduced to that high school crush) and I have a sense that these tracking apps are making people more suspicious of each other (“Why did you disable the tracking feature, honey?”).
What is more, knowing someone is cheating and knowing with whom or why someone is cheating are very different things. Many of my clients already know that their spouse is cheating, sometimes they know with whom they are cheating. What they want to know is why. Or, they want to know what the other person has that they don’t. This information is obtained by following people.
Similarly, my business clients know their inventory is shrinking, but they want to “catch the bastard red-handed.”
IoT may shift private investigation companies from service providers to SaaS companies (SaaS means software as a service), a tech company, or both. Rather than being operated or staffed by blue-collar, former detectives, PI agencies may need to adapt and hire programmers and engineers. Perhaps it won’t be such a drastic shift; however, we will need to utilize technology made available to us. But I have no doubt that the surveillance of a more distant future may involve no human sitting, waiting for hours, watching a target. It will be made up of very tiny robots and drones, mobilized to pick up and follow a license plate or person identified in a photograph. This is where the regulatory environment comes into play. If legislation is passed to thwart drones following people, then maybe a human will need to be present to follow a target for filming purposes. Maybe laws will dictate where drones can and cannot go. For example, will it be legal for telling an unoccupied drone car to follow another, or will this be a form of harassment and intimidation? In some states, laws outline drone flying over private property and businesses. Of course, lawsuits will be filed, courts will settle the disputes and give guidance, as they are now.
How willing private investigators are to push the boundaries and become the test cases will determine how rapid the industry will change. Nobody wants to be the one sued for pushing the boundaries. I cannot predict exactly how it will play out. What I can predict is that following people will be both easier, harder, and riskier in the age of ride share, autonomous vehicles, and IoT. PI agencies who decide to invest now in changing their business models to fit this environment may reap huge profits. Unfortunately, they may also risk a great deal.
Stay in touch with me, will you?
Equipment is important
Covert Investigations uses Gen-3 military grade night vision on all night surveillance. See a demo at:
Gen-3 equipment gives you facial recognition from long distances in the middle of the night and with little to no light.
The Gen-3 equipment is not to be confused with the inadequate night shot feature that comes standard with all video cameras. That video when produced only gives silhouetted images and is useless for evidence purposes.
If you have an assignment at night and you want quality identifiable evidence please call me or search a company that has similar equipment.
If an agency says they have Gen-3 equipment demand it be used and refuse to pay for the assignment if the it is not used. Covert Investigations will never bill a client for failure on our part.
Your evidence is important to your case. Be sure your Investigator has that equipment.
Observations & Interviews, a blog by Chet Engstrom
Chet Engstrom is owner of Covert Investigations Services, a private investigations firm located in Lewisville, Texas (DFW area). Texas license number: C10745.
4101 McEwen, Dallas, TX, 75244