The PI Chronicles: Exploring the PI’s Tool Bag

Wigs, miniaturized handguns, microfilm, and of course radio frequency sub-dermal transponder implants for second-by-second location referencing, accurate to within three microns. We all know that the essential kit for practising spy-craft includes the tiniest, coolest, most advanced technological wonders ever conceived, though James Bond didn’t do much real spy work.

There are a few things every professional stalker needs to keep in his tool box, but most can be picked up at your local mall; and for the most part, you won’t catch me wearing a wig. Contrary to Hollywood’s version of the debonair secret-agent-man, the real world P.I. uses some pretty cool stuff along side some very common-sense paraphernalia.

Binoculars, camera’s, tripods, microphones, computers, telephones…we have a wide range of technology available to us, but by far the most valuable asset in the kit of any investigator is his brain.

Behavioural observation isn’t something to take lightly, and is the single most used tool in our arsenal. Discerning between the many varied behaviours any person can display at any given time, and translating those behaviours into plausible and justified evidentiary conclusions is a tricky game. Objectivity and detachment are imperative to effective observation, and sometimes come at a cost. In order to determine the nature of the human events (or lack thereof) taking place in front of us, we need to be able to call on a host of personal experiences and training, and while empathising with the plight of our subject, we have to separate our personal feelings and consider what the meaning is, as it relates to a complete stranger.

All in a span of time anywhere between mere seconds and very few minutes, we can be faced with decisions that are based on the behaviours of our subjects and might possibly conflict with the goals of our client. One situation comes to mind right away; that moment just before my subject becomes aware that I am indeed following them. Do I interpret the erratic behaviour of a complete stranger as a reaction to me, or to some element of their daily routine? Do I call off my efforts on a guess or wait for the inevitable confrontation that will negate all evidence and bring the cancellation of the assignment?

It’s easy enough to say that every situation is different, and as much as I dislike the stereotype,Hollywood has gotten a few things right over the years. When I’m in the field, when microseconds count for relative eternities, and rushed decisions can count for disaster or success, an innate sense of people is the only tool that will help. We all get burned from time-to-time and as all rookie investigators come to find out, surveillance paranoia is a very real phenomenon.

Is the watcher being watched? Did that nosey neighbour really see me, and did they call the police? When my subject looked directly at me, did he see a cautious and deliberate investigator or just some guy on the street? Has anyone noticed that strange van parked on the street for the third day in a row? Did I get too close or did I look too long? All these questions streaming through your head like a live feed from an online mental hospital, is enough to make anyone wonder who’s really being watched. It is normal though, and does eventually give way to a calmer head in the light of experience, and maybe a little indifference.

Where do we go from here? If the keen eye and mind of the investigator are the basis of all the tools we have at our disposal, the rest must be extensions of that one faculty. Extending the senses, sharpening the responses and enabling information to flow faster and more freely between resources is the real function of our tools.

No one can spy properly without a decent set of binoculars. There are varying levels of quality in brands and types of binoculars, and for the most part they are relatively inexpensive. For general purposes, smaller is better in the world of stalking and this is true for binoculars. A typical set of compact spy glasses will be have a value of 10×20 magnification, with one number representing the magnification ratio of the optics and the other representing the field of view.

Unfortunately for me, the movies have spy gear all wrong. A pair of 20×80, high powered ruby lens binoculars will not only set you back anywhere between $600-$800 dollars, they also won’t get you a better view. For various reasons involving focal length and image stability, the basic run-of-the-mill binoculars are the better choice; not to mention, it’s hard to be discreet with a pair of extendo-goggles larger than a toaster and so heavy you have to use a tripod to see anything.

A camera is more than essential, it’s a fundamental part of the work, it’s the whole reason we’re out there. Back in the days before Magnum PI, the arsenal of the gumshoe included flashbulb Polaroid’s and black & white film. These days’ things are a little more user friendly. Mini-CCD cameras, digital and wireless pinhole cameras, palm sized HD camcorders, and ultra-long lens digital SLR cameras have made surveillance a whole lot more effective.

Now, this isn’t a class in modern photography, but there are a few things worth mentioning. In a world were everything visual is digital, and images are manipulated with frightening realism in every imaginable way using only the most basic of computer software, it may not be surprising to learn that most law enforcement and investigative bodies are shy of accepting untraceable and unverifiable photographic mediums to speak for us in the courts. Most PI’s these days are using common consumer grade mini-DV camcorders, in lieu of the newer DVD and hard drive based cameras that are available. An analog image is maintainable in an easily verified original state, and while they tend to take up more physical storage space and have an intrinsically high cost-per-use ratio, the drawbacks are offset by their ready acceptance in the legal system.

While hidden cameras (nanny-cams) are quite common in the PI world, they are typically used in very specific circumstances, and for the most part are used in conjunction with a camcorder. There are many elaborate and inventive ways we use cameras for close quarters observations and stings, and for the most part the technology available is easily married to simple home-made apparatus for portability and concealment.

With the current climate of supreme privacy at constant war with the interests of business, sound recording has gone the way of the dinosaur, at least in the PI world. The opportunities to legally record a conversation are seriously limited, and that limitation is compounded by technological reach. While parabolic microphones are available, and hidden microphone technology is advancing just as fast as video technology, the words we say are almost more important than the actions we take. As a result it is currently illegal to record a conversation unless at least one of the parties of the conversation are aware that it is being recorded. Now, due to the disconnected nature of surveillance observations, the chances are pretty slim that I’ll be required to make direct contact with my subject, hence, the chances are even thinner that I’ll have an opportunity to legally record their conversations.

Where we do use microphones is typically in the area of administration. Hand written surveillance notes are quickly becoming a thing of the past, often replaced with digital dictation of our observations in the field, which are transcribed to an official report following the conclusion of the investigation. Also common, though again limited to special circumstances, are hidden mics and wire taps; these are not the Hollywood versions of surreptitious espionage and deceit however; they are typically modern forms of CYA (Cover You’re A$$), to legally, and in most cases quite innocently, record client meetings, phone conversations and daily logs.

One area where reality has ably kept up with fantasy in this industry is computers and software. Though think less CSI and more Knight Rider. Nearly all PI’s are equipped with lap top computers, GPS devices and handheld weather centres. Many even go so far as to subscribe to long range cellular based internet access, so that the surveillance vehicle is essentially transformed into a mobile office.

But the tools and toys don’t end with hardware. In the internet age, a persons life is lived almost as much online as it is in the real world; our observation are often extended to the digital world, and this is an area where technology reaches well beyond what is portrayed on the silver screen.

Not that I’m about to reveal any trade secrets or anything, but suffice it to say, the current state of investigative software and interconnectivity of government resources translates into an ability to seek and verify many different levels of personal information in many different areas of interest. This of course is mitigated quite effectively by a legislated responsibility to control and account for any and all information we have access to (meaning that we are federally and provincially accountable for the secure and responsible use of any personal information we may come to possess about any given person).

Where would we be today without cell phones, PDA’s and BlackBerry’s? Being and staying connected to our support and management teams is critical to our success in the field. Most investigations involve many layers of evolving information, which in most cases is managed by a team of case managers who are continually verifying, comparing and testing developed information, all in an effort to make certain that investigators in the field have the best and most up-to-date profiles to work with.

Email and text messages on the go keep us connected to our chain of command and to our clients. As things unfold in the real world, our customer’s priorities can change, and while there is a law enforcement element to this work, ultimately our purpose is to assist our clients in managing financial risk, which means that efficiency and cost conservation are imperative. Constant and reliable communication is the only way to service our clientele effectively. The advent of multi-use wireless devices has enabled a much more effective workforce of investigators, observing the world at large on behalf of insurance company’s world wide.

One of the most common questions I’m asked in this line of work is: “do you carry a gun?” The answer is an unequivocal ‘No’! I carry nothing resembling a weapon, for obvious and not so obvious reasons. Private Investigators are not police officers, we are not keepers of the peace and we do not respond to emergency situations; therefore we have no need for firearms, handcuffs, batons or anything related to the job of making order out of disorder. I have found myself in situations which were less than conducive to a continued healthy existence, but thus far have never needed to defend myself against anything more than words.

In Canada it remains illegal for a person, regardless of their occupation, to carry a concealed weapon. There are permits and special circumstances which do allow for partial concealment, but for the most part, any object that can be used, explicitly or not, as a deadly weapon is something this industry wants no part of. In reality, if I’m doing my job properly, no one will be aware of my presence until long after I’ve departed, which translates into no justifiable reason for a Private Investigator to carry any kind of weapon.

Some agencies maintain dual licensing, as private investigation bodies and as private security bodies. Licensed under the same governmental authority, these companies often engage in VIP protection (bodyguard) services rather than typical commercial or financial based fraud investigations, and as such may be more prone to the use of weapons and force in the course of their duties. Like any other industry though, operating in the private sector lends value to the specialization of marketable skills and reduces the chance of an investigator wearing more than one “hat”, so to speak. This means that, for the most part, a bodyguard is a bodyguard, and an investigator is an investigator.

All PI agencies differ in some way from their competition, some offering services in a slightly different way, some specialising in various sectors of business, and some serving only specific types of customers. Though through all that diversity, the end result is often the same, and our product is achieved using the same basic tools. High tech, low tech and no tech, our job is to observe and report and as the technologies of our industry evolve with the advance of optics and camera technology, mobile computing, and cellular networking technology, so to do the overall capabilities of our field agents.

We are watching, and everyday, our clients are able to see more and more of your life.

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