If you’re suspicious of a cheating spouse or worried about parental supervision, it’s easy to hire a PI for intel. But some PIs can cross the line between ethical surveillance and illegal invasion of privacy.

Proportional information use is essential for private investigators to remain ethical. They must also balance competing interests and make decisions that minimize harm.

Ethical Dilemmas

Private investigators must adhere to strict ethical guidelines. While popular media often depicts investigators going off script, doing so can be costly in terms of professional reputation and legal consequences. Investigators must be familiar with their state’s laws to ensure compliance with them. While each investigator may interpret and define ethics differently, a general baseline exists.

Ethical behavior focuses on truthfulness, integrity, and fairness. Private investigators must present accurate and verifiable facts to clients. Falsehoods or shortcuts compromise the integrity of an investigation and can result in a PI being fired or even arrested.

While the concept of privacy is a fundamental element of the profession, PIs are often called upon to breach this principle when they gather information. The infamous case of Chelsea Manning reveals the dangers when private individuals gain access to classified information. She disclosed sensitive military documents, including diplomatic correspondence, photographs of civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, and a wide range of other material.

Private spies for hire can be hired to dig up intel on an array of topics, from sanctions busting to asset tracking and fraud. In some cases, PIs are contracted to dig up info on an estranged spouse or an adversarial separated partner with a custody dispute or other grudge. These situations can sometimes lead to allegations of trespassing or stalking, and it is important for a client to carefully vet a PI before hiring them to spy on their loved one.

Some PIs have been accused of unethical behavior in their work, such as stealing data from a competitor or using confidential information for their own benefit without the consent of the client. They might also use spyware to monitor electronic devices or infiltrate locations that the client does not want them in. If you suspect an unethical PI, contact your state licensing department or PI commission and your attorney. They can help you determine whether you have sufficient grounds to file a lawsuit. A qualified attorney can also assist you in drafting formal cease and desist orders that the PI can comply with.

Legal Dilemmas

Private investigators, or PIs, provide investigative services for people like you who have questions that need answers. They help clients with their personal, business, and legal needs. They’re often hired by law firms, insurance agencies, companies looking to hire employees, and families seeking to locate lost loved ones.

While many PIs are aboveboard, some operate in gray areas, or do things that are flat-out illegal. Their shady practices give the whole industry a bad reputation, but PI associations work to promote ethical standards through policy advocacy and ethics training. The public can check licensing databases and review PI reviews to find out which investigators are legit.

Illegal spying is a real thing, and it doesn’t just happen in movies and TV shows. Private sleuths sometimes take up positions in the espionage industry, influencing battles and swaying governments with their information gathering. It can also be done by estranged spouses with a grudge or custody/divorce issue, using PIs to get leverage over one another.

Spying for hire can involve any number of tactics, including stalking or monitoring behavior, listening in on phone conversations, and observing physical movements. A PI can even set up “spy hides” outside a target home, camouflaged with chicken wire and foliage, that are connected to high-tech cameras triggered by motion sensors and beaming live video to a PI headquarters in London.

The legal issues related to PI spying are numerous, and vary depending on what’s being investigated and the investigator’s approach. For example, if a PI snaps an inappropriate picture of you in public and publishes it without your permission, that’s a tortious invasion of privacy. Likewise, if a PI secretly taps your phone to monitor your activities, that’s a violation of the Wiretap Act and can land both them and you in trouble.

Other legal issues that PIs face include infliction of emotional distress, defamation, and misappropriation of trade secrets. A PI may be liable for these violations, even in the case of a client’s negligence, if it can be proved that they committed an intentionally harmful act that harmed you as a result.

Technological Dilemmas

A private investigator’s main job is to gather evidence and information. But that’s not the same as being a spy. Spies gather clandestinely or secretively. They’re usually employed by a government agency or law enforcement entity, focusing on a specific criminal case. Spies can also be employed by business or corporations that are trying to influence political or public policy outcomes. That kind of snooping can land a private eye in murky legal territory, and it’s one reason that most PIs avoid political intelligence gathering.

For PIs, there are many ethical issues associated with using surveillance technology. For example, installing spyware or compromising devices like smart home hubs to gather info is a gray area that could violate privacy laws. And what about using emotion recognition or micro expression analysis software on a person without their knowledge?

PIs must always be vigilant to ensure their methods align with legal and privacy laws. Otherwise, they could face criminal or civil lawsuits and lose their license to operate.

Other common ethical issues a PI may run into include misrepresentation by clients or informants, as well as the threat of hacking or data breaches. These dangers can lead to a range of legal claims, including tortious invasion of privacy, defamation, and misappropriation of trade secrets.

The most obvious ethical issue for PIs is the risk of being caught engaging in illegal activities. The profession is heavily regulated to protect the rights of individuals, but investigators who cut corners can be exposed to a range of legal problems.

Depending on the state, breaking any of the rules may result in fines or even jail time. Illegal surveillance, trespassing, wiretapping, or other violations may also lead to criminal charges and lawsuits from victims. Private eyes that break the rules can also risk losing their business, as clients often choose to work with firms that follow the law.

The moral and ethical obligations a PI has toward their clientele and the public are complex, multifaceted, and nuanced. The ABA’s new guidelines must be interpreted with care, and the PI community will need to continue to work together to ensure that the industry is held to high standards of professionalism.

Moral Dilemmas

With the authority to infringe on privacy and the potential to cause harm, a private investigator operates in a delicate field. Adherence to ethical principles is key to ensuring that PI services remain legitimate and respect individual rights.

When a client hires a PI to confirm their suspicions about infidelity, for example, the investigator must balance their legal rights and the moral imperative to preserve privacy. If the investigator proves adultery, the client must decide whether to share that information with their spouse, potentially leading to a divorce and exposing the innocent party to emotional trauma.

Another type of moral dilemma occurs when PIs are employed by businesses to uncover industrial espionage. Although the practice is generally illegal, some PIs continue to work in this area for financial gain. This can lead to a range of problems, from stealing business secrets to tampering with evidence in court cases.

It’s also important for PIs to remember that their clients can use their findings in inappropriate ways. The purpose of PI services is to help people restore perspective and balance in complicated situations, not to fuel bitter disputes or create unnecessary conflict. If a PI discovers a client is using their findings for harassment and abuse, it’s unethical and should be reported to the appropriate authorities.

Finally, PIs should always consider the potential consequences of their actions for others. Using information obtained illegally, for example, can invalidate a case in court and lead to sanctions against the investigator. It’s also unprofessional for PIs to succumb to peer pressure or claim they had no other choice in a particular situation. This reasoning is flawed, as a lack of alternative ethical choices is usually indicative of a lack of ethical awareness.