Now that we know we are surveilled 24/7 by the National Security Agency, the FBI, local police, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, hackers, the Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans, data brokers, private spyware groups like Black Cube, and companies from which we’ve ordered swag on the Internet, is there still any “right to be forgotten,” as the Europeans call it? Is there any privacy left, let alone a right to privacy?
In a world in which most people reveal their intimate secrets voluntarily, posting them on social media and ignoring the pleas of security experts to protect their data with strong passwords—don’t use your birth date, your telephone number, or your dog’s name—shouldn’t a private investigator, or PI, like me be as happy as a pig in shit? Certainly, the totalitarian rulers of the 20th century would have been, if such feckless openness had been theirs to abuse.
As it happens, tech—or surveillance capitalism—has disrupted the private investigation business as much as it’s ripped through journalism, the taxi business, war making, and so many other private and public parts of our world. And it’s not only celebrities and presidential candidates whose privacy hackers have burned through. Israeli spyware can steal the contacts off your phone just as LinkedIn did to market itself to your friends. Google, the Associated Press reported recently, archives your location even when you’ve turned off your phone. Huge online database brokers like Tracers, TLO, and IRBsearch that law enforcement and private eyes like me use can trace your address, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, social media accounts, family members, neighbors, credit reports, the property you own, foreclosures or bankruptcies you’ve experienced, court judgments or liens against you, and criminal records you may have rolled up over the years.
Ten years ago, to subscribe to one of these databases, I had to show proof that I was indeed a licensed investigator and pass an on-site investigation to ensure that any data I downloaded would be protected. I was required to have a surveillance camera and burglar alarm on the building where my office was located, as well as a deadbolt on my office door, a locked filing cabinet, and double passwords to get into my computer. Now, most database brokers just require a PI or attorney license and you can sign right up online. Government records—federal and state, civil and criminal—are also increasingly online for anyone to access.