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Goodbye to All That
A Private Investigator on Living in a Surveillance Culture
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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 twentieth 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, email 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 dead bolt 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.

The authoritarian snoops of the last century would have drooled over the surveillance uses of the smartphones that most of us now carry. Smartphones have, in fact, become one of the primo law enforcement tools other than the Internet. “Find my iPhone” can even find a dead body — if, that is, the victim left her iPhone on while being murdered. And don’t get me started on the proliferation of surveillance cameras in our world.

Take me. I had a classic case that shows just how traceable we all now are. There was a dead body, a possible murder victim, but no direct evidence: no witnesses, no DNA, no fingerprints, and no murder weapon found. In San Francisco’s East Bay, however, as in most big American cities, there are so many surveillance cameras mounted on mom-and-pop stores, people’s houses, bars, cafes, hospitals, toll bridges, tunnels, even in parks, that the police can collect enough video, block by block, to effectively map a suspect driving around Oakland for hours before hitting the freeway and heading out to dump a body, just as the defendant in my case did.

Once upon a time, cops and dirty private eyes would have had to attach trackers to the undercarriages of cars to follow them electronically. No longer. The particular suspect I have in mind drove his victim’s car across a bridge, where cameras videotaped the license plate but couldn’t see inside the car; nor, he must have assumed, could anyone record him on the deserted road he finally reached where he was undoubtedly confident that he was safe. What he didn’t notice was the CALFIRE video camera placed on that very road to monitor for brush fires. It caught a car’s headlights matching his on its way to the site he had chosen to dump the body. There was no direct evidence of the murder he had committed, just circumstantial, tech-based evidence. A jury, however, convicted him in just a few hours.

A World of Tech Junkies

In our world of the unforgotten, tech is seen as a wonder of wonders. Juries love tech. Many jurors think tech is simply science and so beyond disbelief. As a result, they tend to react badly when experts are called as defense witnesses to disabuse them of their belief in tech’s magic powers: that, for instance, cellphone calls don’t always pinpoint exactly where someone was when he or she made a call. If too many signals are coming in to the closest tower to a cell phone, a suspect’s calls may be rerouted to a more distant tower. Similarly, the FBI’s computerized fingerprint index often makes mistakes in its matches, as do police labs when it comes to DNA samples. And facial recognition systems, the hottest new tech thing around (and spreading like wildfire across China), may be the most unreliable of all, although that certainly hasn’t stopped Amazon from marketing a surveillance camera with facial recognition abilities.

These days, it’s hard to be a PI and not become a tech junkie. Some PIs use tech to probe tech, specializing, for example, in email investigations in big corporate cases in which they pore through thousands of emails. I recently asked a colleague what it was like. “It’s great,” he said. “You don’t have to leave your office and for the first couple of weeks you entertain yourself finding out who’s having affairs with whom and who’s gunning for whom in the target’s office, but after that it’s unspeakably tedious and goes on for months, even years.”

When I started out, undoubtedly having read too many Raymond Chandler and Sue Grafton novels, I thought that to be a real private eye I had to do the old-fashioned kind of surveillance where you actually follow someone in person. So I agreed to tail a deadbeat mom who claimed to be unemployed and wanted more alimony from her ex. She turned out to be a scofflaw driver, too, a regular runner of red lights. (Being behind her, I was the one who got the tickets, which I tried to bill on my expense report to no avail.) But tailing her turned out to make no difference, except to my bank account. Nor did tech. Court papers had already given us her phone and address but no job information. Finally, I found her moonlighting at a local government office. How? The no-tech way: simply by phoning an office where one of her relatives worked and asking for her. “Not in today,” said the receptionist helpfully and I knew what I needed to know. It couldn’t have been less dramatic or noir-ish.

These days, tech is so omnipresent and omnivorous that many lawyers think everything can be found on the Internet. Two lawyers working on a death-penalty appeal once came to see me about working on their case. There had been a murder at a gas station in Oakland 10 years earlier. Police reports from the time indicated that there was a notorious “trap house” where crack addicts were squatting across from the gas station. The lawyers wanted me to find and interview some of those addicts to discover whether they’d seen anything that night. It would be a quick job, they assured me. (Translation: they would pay me chump change.) I could just find them on the Internet.

I thought they were kidding. Crack addicts aren’t exactly known for their Internet presence. (They may have cell phones, but they tend not to generate phone bills, rental leases, utility bills, school records, mortgages, or any of the other kinds of databases collect that you might normally rely on to find your quarry.) This was, I argued, an old-fashioned shoe-leather-style investigation: go to the gas station and the trap house (if it still existed), knock on doors to see if neighbors knew where the former drug addicts might now be: Dead? Still on that very street? Recovered and long gone?

In a world where high-tech is king, I didn’t get the job and I doubt they found their witnesses either.

You’d think that, in a time when tech is the story of the day, month, and year and a presidential assistant is even taping without permission in the White House Situation Room, anything goes. But not for this aging PI. I mean, really, should I rush over to a belly-dancing class in Berkeley to see if some guy’s fiancée and the teacher go back to her motel together? (No.) Should I break into an ex-lover’s house to steal memos she’d written to get him fired? (Are you kidding?) Should I eavesdrop on a phone call in which a wife is trying to get her husband to admit that he battered her? (Not in California, where the law requires permission from every party in a phone call to be on the line, thereby wiping out such eavesdropping as an investigative tool — only cops with a warrant being exempt.)

I certainly know PIs who would take such cases and I’m not exactly squeaky clean myself. After all, as a journalist working for Ramparts magazine back in the 1960s, I broke into the basement of the National Student Association(with another reporter) to steal files showing that the group’s leaders were working for the CIA and that the agency actually owned the very building they occupied. In a similar fashion, on a marginally legal peep-and-trespass in those same years, another reporter and I crawled through bushes on the grounds of a VA Hospital in Maryland where we had been told that we could find a replica of a Vietnamese village being used to train American assassins in the CIA’s Phoenix program. That so-called pacification program would, in the end, kill more than 26,000 Vietnamese civilians. We found the “village,” secretly watched some of the training, and filed the first piece about that infamously murderous program for New York’s Village Voice.

Those ops were, however, in the service of a higher ideal, much like smartphone videographers today who shoot police violence. But most of surveillance capitalism is really about making sure that no one in our new world can ever be forgotten. PIs chasing perps in divorce cases are a small but tawdry part of just that. But what about, to take an extreme case in which the sleazy meets the new tech world big time, the FBI’s pursuit of lovers of kiddy porn, which I learned something about by taking such a case? The FBI emails a link to a fake website that it’s created to all the contacts a known child pornographer has on his computer or phone. It has the kind of bland come-on pornographers tend to use. If you click on that link, you get a menu advertising yet more links to photos with titles like “my 4-year-old daughter taking a bath.” Click on any of those links and you’ll be anything but forgotten. The FBI will be at your door with cuffs within days.

Does someone who devours child porn have a right to be forgotten? Maybe you don’t think so, but what about the rest of us? Do we? It’s hardly a question anymore.

The Good and Ugly Gotchas of This Era

When all the surveillance techniques on those information databases work, it’s like three lemons lining up on a one-armed bandit. Recently, for instance, a California filmmaker called me, desperate. She was producing a movie about the first Nepalese woman to climb Mount Everest. Her team had indeed reached the summit, but were buried in an avalanche on the way down with only one survivor. The filmmaker wanted to find that man.

Could I do so? She didn’t have enough money to send me to Nepal. (Rats!) But couldn’t I find him on the Internet? His name, she told me, was Pemba Sherpa. What’s his family name, I asked? That’s when I found out that “sherpa” isn’t just a Western term for Nepalese who guide people up mountains; it’s the surname of many Nepalese. Great! That’s like asking me to find John Smith with no birthdate, social security number, address, or even the Nepalese equivalent of the state where he lives. In my mind’s eye, I could instantly see my database search coming up with the always frustrating “your search criteria resulted in too many records found.” I also had my doubts that, despite the globalization of our tech world, most Nepalese were on the Internet.

Amazingly, however, checking out “sherpas,” I promptly found a single Pemba in my search, unfortunately with — the bane of a PI’s life — not another piece of information.

Okay, Google, I thought, it’s all yours. No Pemba on the first five pages of my search there. (Groan.) But it was late at night and I was feeling obsessive, so I kept going. (Note to home investigators: don’t give up on Google after those first few pages.) From earlier research, I had discovered that one of the main Nepalese communities outside that country was in Portland, Oregon, where many mountaineering companies are also based. On maybe my 28th Google page, I suddenly saw a link to a Portland alternative newspaper story from the mid-1990s. (Who was even scanning in such articles back then?)

I clicked on it. The piece was about a Portland Pemba Sherpa who had gone back to his native village to help its inhabitants get electricity. The article went on to say that he had left Nepal “because too many of his friends had died on the mountain.” Hmmm. It also reported that he was married to a mathematics teacher at a Portland community college.

We’re talking about a more-than-20-year-old article! Still, the next morning I doggedly called the college and yes, his wife was teaching math there. I was patched through to the math department where, yes again, the wife picked up and, yes, her husband was the sole survivor of that climb, and she was sure he’d want to be interviewed for the movie.

Bingo! The actual wonders of the Internet and a heartwarming story about someone who needed to be found. Finding an ancient nanny to invite to the wedding of a guy she had raised — after they had been out of contact for decades — proved a similarly happy search. But that’s rare. The question, not just for PIs but for all of us, is this: Should everyone be so track down-able, even if they don’t wish to be? Some investigators, in the spirit of the moment, think that if there’s an unknowable about anyone, it should be uncovered. The journalist who outed novelist Elsa Ferrante really thought he’d done something, but it was just another in an increasing number of mean-spirited gotchas of our era.

Why do people need privacy anyway? The freedom and community that Internet utopians promised us has led instead to the scraping open of our lives by law enforcement, social media, hackers, marketers, and the world’s governments. Now we’re left largely to our own devices when it comes to what little we can do about it and the global surveillance culture that it’s enmeshed all of us in.

Back in the late 1960s, Erwin Knoll, editor of the Progressive magazine, made President Richard Nixon’s enemy list. That qualified him to be wiretapped by the FBI, so he asked his wife Doris to call female friends every day and discourse on grisly gynecological matters to disturb the listening agents (mostly male in those days). Erwin wondered if they wouldn’t think it was some kind of code.

Alexa! I just got back from my gynecologist and…

After 40 years as a journalist for a variety of media outlets, none of them fake, TomDispatch regular Judith Coburn became a private eye, specializing in death-penalty cases and searches for people whom filmmakers and writers want to find for their movies and books.

(Republished from TomDispatch by permission of author or representative)
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  1. Great article! All time great. Never to be forgotten, quite a concept. And still, the anonymity of sheer numbers. If I write here, how many will read it? Out of those, how many that would track me over it? My comments at the Herald? If say, 150 people stumbled across any of it, what’s the consequence to power, which I speak against exclusively? What do they care what I think? Or do they? So far my bank account is intact but I am irrelevant small potatoes.

    The value to me with all this? People smarter than me present other points and when it’s here, it’s ALSO against power. Are they also at risk from power? Who knows? If the entire Unz site and others of a similar vein were any threat to power, power would simply snuff the site. Or the owners. I figure THEY figure that by permitting us to blather about, at least they know what’s under our fingernails. They own the joint, lock, stock and barrel and they know it. And so, what do they care what we think? There’s nothing we can do with/about any of it anyway.

    Their power over us is Soviet in that so much of the population works in support of all this and is connected via the academia/politics/media/government employment/military-industrial/Law enforcement monster and can be eliminated professionally, completely disappeared, never to be employed again for the slightest misstep in speech, social contact, even ‘bad’ thoughts that can be construed as ‘hate’. Now THAT is Soviet. We’re there. Siberia? They don’t need no stinkin’ Siberia.

    • Agree: RadicalCenter
  2. The author claims:

    “in most big American cities, there are so many surveillance cameras mounted on mom-and-pop stores, people’s houses, bars, cafes, hospitals, toll bridges, tunnels, even in parks, that the police can collect enough video, block by block, to effectively map a suspect driving around Oakland for hours before hitting the freeway and heading out to dump a body, just as the defendant in my case did.”

    On 9-11, in one our nation’s most advanced cities, a partially trained small plane pilot flew a huge hijacked commercial airliner near the Pentagon, with its dozens of security cameras and hundreds of tourists around, performed a difficult diving, loop turn and crashed it perfectly into the Pentagon, and there is not a single picture or video recording! Not even from the dozens of non-Pentagon security cameras in the area.

    The same happened with the recent Seth Rich murder in that city.

    Just amazing.

    • Replies: @nsa
    , @Tom Welsh
  3. Those ops were, however, in the service of a higher ideal, much like smartphone videographers today who shoot police violence.

    You mean serving the Revolution? Don’t try to smuggle your Marxist BS though customs as ‘a higher ideal’.

    Great column, though

  4. Anonymous [AKA "CharlesHomer"] says:

    Here is an interesting look at how WiFi can be used to actually track every keystroke that an individual makes:

    It is only a matter of time before this technology is widely used by the world’s intelligence networks, prying even further into what little remains of our privacy.

    • Replies: @jilles dykstra
  5. I wonder if much has changed over time.
    Bismarck warned his wife not to write about certain things to him as he expected the letters to be read.
    Forgot where and when apparently business letters contained hidden messages.
    Present monitoring of internet, phone calls, camera’s everywhere, registering cars by camera’s, yet how many crimes remain unsolved ?
    Any car used in a crime these days with us is torched, to make use of dna impossible.
    Germany has something called Verfassungsschutz, ‘protection of the constitution’, a nebulous agency trying to discover and infiltrate into extreme right groups that adore Hitler, something like that.
    In trial sometimes judged decided that in these groups there were so many Vmänner, undercover men, that it seemed the group was run by these Vmänner.
    So no legal measures.
    A filmmaker with us, Theo van Gogh, was killed by a Muslim, he had made a film very offensive to Islam.
    The group that decided to kill him was not detected before the murder.

  6. @Anonymous

    And ?
    As soon is this is known just idiots will use keystrokes that cause suspicion

  7. Malla says:

    This is what all that phoney war on terrorism was all about. Create the problem: Terrorism, Solution: Surveillance slave society.

    What next? Microchips in our bodies? Smart cities where we are all plugged in to a grid and we become slave automatons for our Satanic oligarchic masters?

    • Replies: @renfro
    , @Anonymous
  8. nsa says:
    @Carlton Meyer

    The picture of the initial 20′ entrance hole in the Pentagon facade is still available on the internet. According to the official script, a hijacked 757 airliner crashing into the facade created this 20′ hole.
    No sign of any debris. So what happened to the wings, fins, elevators, turbine motors? They could not have fit through the 20′ hole. Why would the masters of the universe leave this picture posted? Hmmmmm………

    • Replies: @Da Wei
  9. Mike P says:

    Great storytelling. Also thanks for the heads-up about those bush fire surveillance cameras, have to remember that on my next body-dumping run.

    • LOL: Liza
  10. Tom Welsh says:
    @Carlton Meyer

    Yes, I think I catch your drift.

    Perhaps it’s also amazing that the CNN reporter who was immediately on the scene at the Pentagon stated categorically that there was absolutely no trace of an aircraft of any kind to be seen.

    To my mind by far the most amazing fact is that so many millions of citizens believe (or pretend to believe) those things. Or the Syrian chemical weapons stories, or the Skripal story, or the Boston Marathon bombing story, or any of the dozens of other apparent fictions.

  11. Anonymous [AKA "Future Re-Education Camp Resident"] says:

    Everyone reading this article will eventually going to be sent to re-education camp. Our ISPs have logs of us reading, which will be all the evidence needed.

    • Replies: @Da Wei
  12. @Jim Christian

    “And still, the anonymity of sheer numbers.”

    I think this is the difference nowadays. You imagine you are just a needle in a haystack. And the haystack is getting bigger, so what worries does a needle have? But modern surveillance is like a giant magnet: it just pulls the needle out of the haystack without having to go through all that extraneous hay. So if someone sufficiently important/motivated takes an interest in you, your life of quiet anonymity is over.

    Still, this is not entirely new. Back before the internet was a thing, I knew a corporate lawyer whose office had inadvertently sent an important fax (remember those lol?) to a wrong number. Unfortunately, the wrong number also had a fax machine, the so the fax went through, but to an unknown recipient. As the fax contained proprietary non-public information about an upcoming merger, it was incumbent upon the law office to prevent the spread of that information so they sicced their security/investigation guys on the wrong number to find out who had (inadvertently) obtained this market-moving info. Of course the number was owned by an ordinary, private citizen minding his own business. But it was shocking how quickly and how much information about this random bystander the security/investigation guys obtained. And, as I say, this was pre-internet.

    The difference nowadays is that 1) you don’t have to be a highly credentialed security/investigation guy to get a lot of this info now, and 2) there is a lot more to get.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  13. I bought a sandwich and cola from the Boots in London City Airport. They asked to scan my boarding pass. I declined, but I was alone. Everyone practically gives their data away without question these days.

    • Replies: @Dave Bowman
  14. renfro says:

    What next? Microchips in our bodies?

    Don’t laugh but in my day dreams of various plots to remove certain politicians I have wondered if they are micro chipped so they could be traced in event of kidnapping.
    If you’re going to snatch some important figure you probably need some kind of wand to scan their body so you can remove the chip.

  15. Anonymous[299] • Disclaimer says:

    What next? Microchips in our bodies?

    Unnecessary. Everyone is already glued to devices with multiple, powerful, microchips, potentially always-on camera, microphone, GPS, spying software and 24/7 connection to the mothership. Even if you don’t use a smart-phone you can be surveilled by the sea of devices around you.

    • Replies: @Malla
  16. MarkinLA says:
    @Jim Christian

    And still, the anonymity of sheer numbers.

    Not really due to the exponential increases in processing power that allow ever powerful computers and AI search algorithms. The NSA can add supercomputers to their processing centers faster than new people can hook up to communication systems.

  17. mike k says:
    @Jim Christian

    You are so right Jim. Exercising my free speech to dis the establishment only
    demonstrates my irrelevance by the lack of response from said establishment. I continue to do it anyway simply to blow off steam, and perhaps briefly entertain a few fellow discontents. Freedom, your name is futility….

  18. MarkinPNW says:

    Well, google or somebody keeps asking me to rate the places I go to while carrying my new smartphone; the city park I walk to with the Grandkids, McDonalds, Cracker Barrel, and some nail salon I didn’t even know existed (turns out it was in the strip mall next door to the grocery store where I went to the Credit Union branch). It’s kinda funny and creepy both at the same time!

  19. Its only a matter of time before they get rid of the baby footprints at birth and just record DNA. Then they run a computer check to find the real dad to bill for child support costs, although it will ruin some marriages.

  20. Da Wei says:

    Hubris. The ruling elite tend to revel in their perceived victories by leaving visible trophies, confident that nothing will be done about it. It’s an old pattern, and one Douglas Reed discusses in The Controversy of Zion. We should take solace in this and treat it as a tragic flaw.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  21. Da Wei says:

    I’ve noticed lately that Google seems to be doing a check — during which I see a blank screen — before connecting me to UNZ. Sometimes they’re slow, maybe from a backlog. See you in rehab.

  22. Anonymous[299] • Disclaimer says:
    @Da Wei

    True. The hubris is stenching the place.

  23. denk says:

    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

    Nobody question that assertion.

    Mission accomplished.

  24. @renfro

    day dreams of various plots to remove certain politicians

    You and me both, friend. Let me know when you need some help with a list of priority targets ; )

  25. @The Alarmist

    Scary, for sure. But on the up-side…

    I think it also indicates a mind-bending degree of professional incompetence, and general brain-dead stupidity on the part of those businesses and organisations using the ID technology – they have become either a very deeply disturbing, sinister and undisguised tool for serious long-term monitoring – or else simply shiny hi-tech gadgets for the play value, like a bunch of adolescent business interns in tech kindergarten.

    My guess is the former, as there can be no earthly legitimate business purpose or benefit for a busy high-street retail store actually NEEDING to identify any walk-in customer over a one-minute purchase – let alone use an airline Boarding Pass for the purpose, with all the back-tracing , de-crypting etc that would involve, in some whirring back-office system. It’s simply utterly pointless, as the instant you confirmed that flight online and transferred the money, your entire international ID profile was passed seamlessly to the FBI – and probably a dozen other agencies – without your knowledge or consent, for auto-checking against their entire world lists of Wanted, Suspected, Escaped, Monitored, or otherwise Undesirable / Deplorable.

    So why Boots (a British high-street pharmacy / corner-shop outfit for our American readers) ? And why, presumably a thousand others just the same, every minute of every day ?

    That is the real question. But I doubt whether Boots or anyone else will ever be asked by our highly-intelligent, efficient, dedicated, principled investigative news reporting organisations to answer it.

  26. @Dave Bowman

    Not to forget that London City airport is the main business airport for the UK’s and Europe’s business elite, i.e. Masters of the Universe, and nearly all of them willingly let their boarding passes be scanned without a question or second thought.

  27. @renfro

    I thought they settled on those cute lapel pins they all wear.

  28. @Dave Bowman

    The constant showing of ID for seemingly innocuous reasons such as at a Boots also has a resulting conditioning effect where few will resist the future and more serious invasions of their privacy.

  29. Anonymous[137] • Disclaimer says:
    @Almost Missouri

    But it was shocking how quickly and how much information about this random bystander the security/investigation guys obtained

    How did they do it?

    • Replies: @Almost Missouri
  30. Malla says:

    Check out this scary google video

    Goolge ledger and behaviour modification

  31. Malla says:

    Unnecessary, but the elites are paranoid.

  32. Malla says:

    But I could not help laughing. What if the body scan shows that they are basically reptiles under a human skin?

  33. @Anonymous

    I don’t know, but probably those databases the author mentions.

    Tracers, TLO, and IRBsearch …
    … 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 dead bolt 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.

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