This page offers a brief consideration of private investigation
and surveillance activity, which ranges from private detectives
through to commercial security services.
It covers -
The private security sector (including its regulation)
is discussed in a more detailed six page note elsewhere
on this site.
It has been fashionable to conceptualise the liberal democratic
state as one that successfully aspires to maintain a monopoly
of force and that broadly restricts 'surveillance' by
non-government entities. In practice, as is evident in
discussion throughout this site, advanced economies are
founded on an acceptance - even encouragement - of individual
and corporate consumption of a range of surveillance services.
Providers of those services constitute what one critic
characterises as the continuum from Hollywood gumshoes
to gorillas, including practitioners with a high level
of skill (often independently certified) and people who
failed to get employment as cleaners or fast-food counter
The acceptance reflects a recognition that government
agencies cannot and should not be omnipresent. It also
reflects assignment to private individuals and organisations
of responsibility for much prevention of commercial loss
and enforcement of rights.
Overall we can identify a range of surveillance activities
in the private sector. Some are considered quite legitimate
(and indeed are usually taken for granted). Others are
more contentious or even broadly considered to be illicit.
Those activities include -
facility 'watching services'
investigators, used by individuals and organisations
to collect information regarding insurance fraud, corporate
espionage and other matters
data collectors and brokers such as consumer credit
reference services, direct mail list brokers
service' providers that for example vet job applicants
and test employees for drug consumption
security services such as night-club bouncers and staff
who 'sweep' beggars from
Some of those services watch individuals and operate on
a craft basis, including reliance on personal observation.
Others operate on an industrial scale - obtaining, processing
and disseminating data about millions of people. Emphases
vary from protection (eg intrusion detection or identification
of shoplifting) to collection of information. Some of
that information might be specific (the 'cheating husband'
or the job applicant). Other information might be diffuse,
enabling a panoptic sort of particular demographics for
direct marketing or for denial of personal finance and
Increasingly there has been a blurring of roles - and
of discrete surveillance organisations - with the emergence
of a 'private market for force' (sometimes used by states
or major corporations alongside or as a surrogate for
armies and police forces) and emergence of surveillance
conglomerates that encompass direct mail list services,
employee drug testing and consumer credit referencing.
Private 'watching services' - on a volunteer and commercial
basis, covering precincts and specific locations - predate
the establishment of modern police forces. Commercial
watching services have expanded from traditional 'night
watchman' security patrols, store detectives and private
guards to encompass 'CCTV
jockeys' and other personnel monitoring facilities such
as office buildings, retail malls, tollways and computer
Much of that observation is undertaken for the private
sector but it is important to note that governments have
turned to commercial services for management of facilities
and, increasingly, for surveillance of public precincts.
Studies in Surveillance, Crime & Social Control
(Aldershot: Ashgate 2006) edited by Clive Norris &
Dean Wilson for example highlight local government use
of contractors to operate large-scale urban CCTV networks,
with a blurring of boundaries between officials, police
and private sector surveillance personnel.
The effectiveness of much of that watching is uncertain,
with suggestions for example that it is inappropriately
biased towards particular offences (or particular classes
of perceived offenders such as 'hoodies') and that it
sometimes operates as a placebo (with ineffective follow-up
when incidents are detected and failure to watch screens
that might be displaying an incident in progress).
Some organisations traditionally employed large numbers
of undercover private investigators and informants
(Ford was an egregious example, others include government
railways and even religious orders) to identify union
activism, deal with corruption or merely coerce a workforce.
Retailers continue to use 'store detectives' to covertly
watch customers and staff, unsurprising given that much
shoplifting or 'stock shrinkage' appears to involve insiders
rather than amateur and professional thieves. Some of
that observation is face to face; other surveillance relies
on technologies such as visible or concealed cameras.
Although covert surveillance to deter unionisation has
become unfashionable in most jurisdictions, organisations
have however come to justify a range of observation practices
on the basis of preventing sexual harassment, workplace
trading and other concerns. Some observation reflects
a genuine concern for employees and customers. Other observation
reflects a lack of imagination or simply an effort to
minimise corporate liability regarding potential litigation
by victims and compliance agencies.
It includes scrutiny of -
(and of other messaging systems)
by employees (eg through GPS or other tracking devices
in courier vehicles or examination of hotel bookings)
discussed elsewhere on this site, much of that scrutiny
in Australia and other jurisdictions is legal because
the subject has been alerted that surveillance may/will
take place and has assented to that observation (typically
as a condition of work, whether as a merchant banker or
as a cleaner).
Individuals and organisations (including major financial
institutions and law firms) have used private investigators
in surveillance of partners, clients and competitors for
over 150 years. What would now be tagged the 'private
detective' or 'commercial investigation service' predate
Sherlock Holmes and Alan Pinkerton (1819-1884), who is
sometimes claimed as the model for corporate investigators.
Services provided by such investigators include -
of spousal infidelity
of missing children or partners
collection in cases of personal insurance fraud (eg
bogus personal injury claims)
collection regarding suspected financial appropriation
or fraud (including tracing of assets and investigation
of suspected arson)
witnesses for legal proceedings
computer forensic services
background checks and other private sector vetting
for property lease violations or breaches of commercial
shopper' or other retail quality control mechanisms.
of service providers is not restricted to the private
sector. In 2001 for example it was revealed that Australian
federal government welfare agency Centrelink used 19 surveillance
service providers and had covertly monitored 3,000 benefit
recipients. In 2007 the Australian Sports Anti-Doping
Authority indicated use hiring of private investigators
to monitor athletes, coaches and officials using video
and audio surveillance equipment.
The number of people engaged in commercial investigation
often surprises observers unfamiliar with the industry.
In NSW during 2002, for example, there was official licencing
under that state's Commercial Agents & Private
Enquiries Agents Act 1963 of -
Private Inquiry Agents
421 Private Inquiry Sub-Agents
276 Commercial Agents
505 Commercial Sub-Agents
Police Federation of Australia claimed in 2002 that as
of 1999 there were 31,752 employees in the Australian
"private security industry" at a time when there
were 43,038 sworn police officers. A year earlier the
ABC reported that over 100,000 people were employed in
the "security industry". Uncertainty reflects
definitional disagreement, extensive use of subcontracting
and lack of comprehensive registration and reporting.
The extent of churn within the industry is unclear, although
it appears likely that turnover of personnel is high,
with debt collection activity
disillusionment (snooping on errant spouses and insurance
claimants is less exciting than portrayed in much film
external and workplace training
tradition of employee exploitation and low rewards that
in some instances are insufficient to offset practitioner
boredom, disquiet with criticism from contacts and even
of many small enterprises.
In the interim a discussion of pretexting
is here, along with a discussion of agents
used by major information brokers and bodies such as major
insurance companies and law firms.
For many people their main exposure to surveillance is
embodied in loan applications, insurance claims, monthly
credit card and debit card statements and property or
equipment rental applications. That surveillance forms
what Christian Parenti characterises as the 'soft cage'
surrounding most consumers. It was explored by Daniel
Solove in The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy
in the Information Age (New York: New York Uni Press
2004), which notes the blurring of traditional demarcations
as a range of government agencies and commercial entities
collect, aggregate and exchange personal information.
Pervasive panopticism through aggregation and analysis
of financial transactions is highlighted
later in this profile as a point of entry to more detailed
discussion regarding consumer credit referencing, tenancy
blacklists, vetting and data broking.
Points of entry to the literature are -
Tim Prenzler's 2001 Private investigators in Australia:
work, law, ethics and regulation (PDF)
study for the Criminology Research Council
Wakefield's Selling Security: The Private Policing
of Public Space (Cullompton: Willan 2003)
Law of Private Security in Australia (Pyrmont:
Law Book Co 2005) by Rick Sarre & Tim Prenzler
Market for Force: The Consequences of Privatizing Security
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2005) by Deborah Avant
Schefcick's 2004 The Information Seeking Behavior
of Private Investigators: A Study of Investigators in
North Carolina and Georgia (PDF)
Security and the Investigative Process (New York:
Elsevier 1999) by Charles Nemeth
Private Policing (Beverly Hills: Sage 1990)
edited by Clifford Shearing & Philip Stenning
Australian private security industry: the need for Accountability,
Regulation and Professionalisation (PDF)
by Paul Wilson.
more detailed bibliographical note is here.
Local industry bodies include the Australian Security
Industry Association (ASIAL),
Institute of Mercantile Agents (IMA)
and competing Institute of Professional Investigators
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