Private investigators are the modern mercenaries in the battle for information.
On one side there are people desperate to protect their interests, they want to know about those who threaten them.
Opposite, stand those who feel they need to know what others are doing with their time or money.
This struggle has kept private investigators in business despite the troubles in the rest of the economy.
It was a thriving industry during the boom. Operations sprung up in every part of the country providing outlets for many ex-members of An Garda Siochána to use their detective skills.
The recession has seen some aspects of the trade run dry, in particular the contracts to catch cheating partners, but there is still plenty of vested interests willing to invest in surveillance.
Today, the industry is not simply spying on sneaky spouses. It is allowing companies to protect their businesses from costly leaks and ensure those who are not paying their bills have genuine reasons for putting on the poor mouth.
The subjects of snooping have been getting more and more concerned. In particular, there have been complaints about the extent of detail passed over to private investigators.
And for the first time, the Data Protection Commissioner has looked to tie down some rules for those who pay for the services of private investigators.
However, in the absence of formal regulation, the industry still operates off its own code.
Liam Brady, one of the country’s longest serving private investigators, said there are businesses selling their services on the basis of questionable ethics and offering to do work that is not legitimate.
He said more than 30 years ago, he was lobbying for a licensing regime for investigators but this never emerged.
Ideally, such an arrangement would provide an opportunity for bona fide operators to get access to some sensitive data, as long, as it was done within the confines of agreed protocols and was for a legitimate purpose.
The rise in the number of investigators has coincided with the bedding in of data protection laws. This act blocked access to a lot of information that would have represented routine inquires in the 1980s, such as social welfare inquiries.
“The trick now is to get the information, but to get it legally,” said Mr Brady.
This means extended surveillance with cameras that can take picture perfect shots from 300m and catching people in the act of doing what they should not be doing. However, as information has become more precious, Mr Brady said it has led to more requests for businesses and individuals to protect themselves from intrusion.
He said one of the most common practices in counter-information is using detectors to check for bugs. These can cost tens of thousands of euro and sweep entire buildings.
More precise units can be focused on company meetings, business sessions or occasions of interest.
Businesses have become concerned because mobile phones can easily be converted into bugs and rooms can be fitted with covert equipment.
In addition, the number of celebrity couples getting married at well-known locations here has increased the threat of the paparazzi targeting the events with listening devices.
“The [British] press would come over a month beforehand and book into a hotel and book into a suite to bug it,” he said.
The devices in question are available cheaply. They have a small transmitter and work with a pre-paid SIM card. Those looking for information simply dial the SIM and the tiny microphone it is attached to will start broadcasting back what is happening in the room.
These can be voice activated to avoid long unnecessary communications.
However, because the microphones have a certain electronic trace, defensive private investigation equipment can sweep the room to detect signals.
Luxury hotels have said this has been deployed by VIPs ahead of their stays. It is most commonly done by police ahead of the visit of foreign dignitaries.
While this type of defensive PI work is necessary to protect privacy, there is demand for the offensive form of inquiry. However, it is expensive to deploy a person full time to chase somebody.
Mike Kirwan of Elite Private Investigators says he does a lot of tracing of parents of adoptive children: “A lot of the work would be people who have been adopted and they are looking for their mother. Part of it would be to find out where they came from. But most of it would be for medical purposes.”
Mr Kirwan said this involves old-fashioned detective work, knocking on doors and talking to people who might know a piece of a back story.
He said since the downturn people do not have the money to hire investigators without a good reason. There are cases of cheating partners looking for proof of their suspicions but, currently, they do not represent a lot of the case load. In some cases he has to turn business away.
“I had a girl ring me up wanting to know was her fella cheating. When I asked her, she was not married, she was not engaged, and they were not living together.
“I had to say if you do not trust him at this stage you need to end it not hire a private investigator.”
Similarly, Mr Brady said he has to turn away more business than he accepts because he has doubts about the motives or the effect of the outcome. This is not just among married couples but where people are calling up looking for levels of details he knows to be outside the law — such as people needing to obtain social welfare records.
Just like the corporate work he said it is often not just people looking to snoop that hire a PI but also those suspicious that they are being targeted.
Outside of private lives, insurance companies have an obvious vested interest in the work of private investigators. The recession has also seen businesses look for wealth reports on customers who owe money and, who they believe are refusing to pay.
Complaints about the information being passed to private investigators by employers have risen. The problem has reached such a level that the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner has intervened.
It said it frequently receives complaints from people unable to get investigation reports done about them by PIs. The ODPC said if somebody hires a private investigator to surreptitiously gather background details they run a “very serious” risk of breaching data protection acts.
In particular, employers should be aware of the dangers of passing on sensitive facts about an employee to a third party without a proper contract.
“Data controllers who hire a private investigator to undertake surveillance on an individual and/ or to seek a background or other report from a private investigator on an individual, must be aware of and should ensure that [they abide by the rules],” it said.
Read more in this special investigation here.
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