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Should Private Investigators Display Their Images on the Internet?

  • December 09, 2012
  • by Kimberly Faber

It’s been a long-standing debate among members of the private investigation profession that has been echoed across forums in the law enforcement arena and government sector. It’s even been referenced in conversations about the CIA, MI6, and other government agencies. While large private investigation firms may dictate that employees are not to post photos of themselves to social media sites, websites, industry publications, and more; so the real question comes down to this: given the option, is it wise for private investigators to allow images of their likeness on their company websites, to accompany industry articles and awards, and even to be posted on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn? Where does the private investigator draw the line between personal and professional life, and how does choosing to not display an image affect marketing? It’s a complicated issue with as many factors as there are investigation types to specialize in. Though many investigators are comfortable with having their images displayed on the internet, others will stop at nothing to keep their online identity anonymous. The following are opinions from investigators on both sides of the issue.

I have no problem with my image being shown on the internet. I specialize in locating people and documents for primarily for attorneys and do not do surveillance or undercover work.

Wayne Mortenson

I have no problem with my image being shown on the internet,” investigator Wayne Mortenson explains. “I specialize in locating people and documents primarily for attorneys and do not do any surveillance or undercover work.” Mortenson furthered that he has no reason to hide his identity and that displaying his image on his website and social profiles may help his marketing efforts. Other investigators expressed concern that concealing their identity can potentially alienate clients, choosing to display their images online in order to establish trust and comfort in the client-investigator relationship. Still, other investigators disagree. “As long as we’re in the business of conducting surveillance and related covert ops, we try to keep our images on the net at a minimum,” Martin Renteria, the owner of an investigations firm in Texas adds. Renteria also examines that a person’s ability to control what shows up online is limited in the 21st Century, saying, “Unfortunately we can’t control postings by friends, family, and other third parties.” In any case, attempting to keep all images offline can be an arduous process.

Though Renteria points out the possible negative ramifications of displaying images online, there are other investigators that believe working surveillance and keeping their identity anonymous has nothing to do with having photos online. Josh Wynne, a private investigator in Tennessee, believes that the subject will never see the investigator if he or she is doing his or her job correctly. “I could watch my own brother without worrying about him recognizing my face,” he says. Wynne, who lives in an area where most people know each other, explains that displaying his own image online has not affected his business although most people are familiar with what he does for a living. Other investigators chimed in with echoes of Wynne's comments, explaining that the target individuals and others involved in investigative assignments do not have the capacity to conduct countersurveillance measures based on a photograph seen online. In short, some private investigators believe that the nature of the investigative work is irrelevant and that it is unlikely that having photos online will influence an investigation or compromise the investigator's safety.

I would hate to think that I may be a target because someone knew what I looked like and didn’t like the outcome of their case. In my off-time I can walk around with peace of mind that I will not have an unwanted and unnecessary confrontation.

Mary Pritchett

But at the forefront of the argument for keeping photos offline is that exact issue: safety. As some investigators work in predominantly violent areas, they share that by making it difficult to be identified both on and offline they are ensuring their safety and keeping themselves protected from potentially violent individuals. “The area I work in has had eight murders all out of nasty domestic and divorce cases, including the murder of one attorney,” Matt Brooks of Arizona explained. “Two of my domestic surveillances have had people my target associated with involved in two other homicides within my days of work. This is the primary reason I don’t use my picture.” Mary Pritchett of the San Francisco Bay Area agreed, saying, “I would hate to think that I may be a target because someone knew what I looked like and didn’t like the outcome of their case. In my off-time I can walk around with peace of mind that I will not have an unwanted and unnecessary confrontation.” Other investigators noted that displaying photos online may compromise future investigations. “We never know who we are going to come into contact with and their associations with others in the world,” Dave Gerhardt explains. “It just isn’t prudent or wise to allow yourself to be known when what most of what we do is clandestine. Safety first, always.” Gilbert Jiminez, an investigator in the Chicago area, shared that following his first investigation he started receiving death threats. Since that day, Jiminez has never allowed his photo to be published and does not carry family photos in his wallet. “The sensibility of this was proved over the years as it also prevents subjects and people from easily Googling me or backgrounding me to learn who to look for. Surveillance isn’t the only case work that benefits from relative anonymity.”

In line with Jiminez’s comments, some private investigators note that the amount of necessary privacy depends upon the type of investigation. “This topic echoes discussions I’ve seen among law enforcement officers regarding social media and other online footprints,” Jonathan Abolins explains. “The answer depends much upon the type of investigations one does.” Abolins continues, stating that investigators who focus on database and records research as well as forensics are less likely to encounter a threat if a person recognizes them. “In any case,” he concludes, “personal safety and protecting professional reputation are important considerations for any online posting.” Professional reputation aside, there are investigators who believe it is unlikely that having a cover blown on surveillance due to images posted online is unlikely and even far-fetched. 

Amidst the safety precautions, discussion of how investigation type should influence the decision, and marketing to clients many investigators joked that all are great excuses for investigators who feel less photogenic and do not want their images online. While some discussed displaying photos from their younger years as an alternative another private investigator laughed that all of his younger photos are in black and white. Tying in with the good humor, Shannon Tulloss, an investigator in the Los Angeles area who has only one photo online for press and speaking engagements shares that anonymity has its perks and laughs. "Frequently I stand next to my clients in court and they don't even know that it's me. It kind of cracks me up," she says. With similar comments echoed throughout the conversation it appears that investigators have no problem approaching a serious topic with a sense of humor. 

As investigators continue to weigh in on the issue it’s clear that most are either completely for or absolutely against having their photos online. Regardless of where any one investigator stands on the issue, there may be some things to consider as you make the choice for your investigations firm. In taking a moment to consider level of experience and commonly conducted investigations, to evaluate the predominant area and criminal climate in which cases are conducted, and to determine whether or not safety and privacy will be affected by having images online, investigators can make the best choice for their individual professional situation. Investigators who feel that removing all online photos will minimize risk of injury, detection, and compromising safety and would like to keep their identity anonymous may want to ask friends and family to remove all photos of their likeness from online postings and send an email or call any publications or third parties requesting that they do the same.

It's clear that the industry is virtually split on this issue, and investigators continue to share their thoughts and comments in various online threads. In closing, the issue of whether or not investigators should keep their online identity anonymous comes down to individual preference and concerns. To share your thoughts on the issue, please comment below.

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