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How Technology Has Changed Data Searches for Private Investigators

Data providerWhereas finding information about a person used to involve investigators spending hours with stacks of phone books and whiling away their days at courthouses, it now takes only the click of a mouse. Ironically, today’s advances in technology are making information both harder and easier to find, which we’ll explain below.

PInow spoke to Terry Kilburn from Tracers Information Specialists, Inc., an online data provider company, who discussed how technology and lifestyle changes have reshaped data collection and dissemination over the years. He also talked about why investigators need to embrace new technology in order to stay competitive. Here’s what we learned from the conversation.

Why finding data is easier now
As people’s lifestyles have increasingly incorporated modern technology, it has become much easier to monitor their activities and gather information about them. Kilburn gave several examples of how it is much easier to track down data today.

  • People’s lives are online - People today conduct their lives online more than ever before, and that trend will keep growing. People pay phone bills and credit card bills online. They communicate through emails, instant messages and video chat. According to Kilburn, people’s e-mail addresses are often as connected to them as their Social Security numbers because people choose e-mail addresses and keep them for many years. As people transfer more of their lives online, they will leave a larger digital footprint, which is welcome news to investigators.
  • Social media - “Today’s generation doesn’t view privacy as we used to,” Kilburn said. “They don’t interact on a physical scale as much as the generation before, and the generation before that.” This lack of concern about privacy leads people to use social media for activities that make them easily monitored. They post information about what they’re doing at the moment - even which locations they’re “checking into.” They readily share birth dates, current photos of themselves, information about their relatives and associates, and much more.
  • More records in digital format - The days of going to courthouses to sort through mountains of paper records are slowly fading into a distant memory. Most government organizations are converting current and existing records into digital format so they can be accessed more easily online.
  • Better databases - Data providers have had to adapt to the changing forms of information available, but the result has been comprehensive databases that are quickly searchable by private investigators. In seconds, investigators can locate cell phone numbers, credit header data, email addresses, criminal records, court filings and more. The larger databases today hold hundreds of billions of public records in addition to many other valuable information types.

Why finding data is more difficult now
The previously discussed topics have made data more accessible, but several other relatively recent developments have hindered access to data. Kilburn pointed to the following reasons why finding and accessing data can still be tricky.

  • Young people’s lifestyles are changing - The current generation of people ages 18-25 moves more often, drops one job for another on a regular basis, and lives week to week on payday loans. This transient lifestyle keeps investigators on their toes and emphasizes the need for the most recent, accurate data available.
  • New laws and regulations - Kilburn said that 20 years ago simple curiosity was a good enough reason to look at someone’s credit data, but now access to things like financial information and medical information are a thing of the past.

    After some high-profile data breaches in the industry, many new laws and regulations have been instituted, and Kilburn says he’s almost never seen a more regulated industry than the one data providers occupy. There are now strict privacy laws, data breach laws - the FCRA, GLBA, and DPPA to name a few - and many other regulations that govern how things are done.

    One example of how things have changed is people’s option in many states to opt out of having their information shared when they get their drivers' licenses or register their vehicles - a practice that used to produce valuable information for investigators. Investigators also used to be able to easily find full Social Security numbers and birth dates, but because of privacy laws it’s often difficult to find untruncated Social Security numbers and birth dates (if they can be found at all). Between consumers opting out and states restricting access, these and other privacy-protecting practices have greatly reduced the number of records available.
  • Ability to alter or hide records - The internet allows people to hide or alter records, such as some online services that will expunge records in exchange for money. People have much more control over their records, which can also reduce the amount of information available.
  • Higher cost of data – Although the equipment used to store data is becoming less expensive the data itself is quickly getting more expensive. States have figured out they can charge large sums for what was once free. As an example, Kilburn says that a subscription to Florida’s vital records file used to be $90. Now it can cost $90,000 for a year’s subscription. Data that used to be free or cheap now costs a lot of money, and the challenge lies in helping investigators afford access to the information they need.
  • Lower per-search costs - Competition and demand has changed the price of database products. Kilburn said that 15 years ago Traces Information Specialists, Inc. sold a simple people search by Social Security number for $25. Today they sell the same search for 25 cents.

Why private investigators need to stay up to date with technology to remain competitive
It often takes as much creative thinking to find information as it did many years ago, but the methods used, tools available, and types of information needed are constantly changing. The days of investigators being paid by the hour to thumb through phone books are over, and the new objective is using technology to quickly target and acquire hard-to-find information.

“Technology has definitely changed the way people do business, and to stay competitive you have to stay up to date with current trends and technology,” Kilburn said. “There’s still a place for the old gumshoe, who will do surveillance and use contacts in the police department.”

With all the advances in technology, investigators need to know which data to look for and how to access it. Those who fall behind with technology will have a harder time staying competitive in today’s investigation industry.

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