Nick Burns, P.I.

I recently paid a service called Geeks on Site to figure out why my computer kept hanging and freezing. After poking around for a day or so, the technicians were able to reduce my CPU usage and improve the computer's performance. The name of the company turned out to be something of a misnomer, however, since the technicians did all their work remotely. If you ask me, Geeks off Site would be more like it. But if you ask the state of Texas, the name should be something like Geek Investigative Services. Under a 2007 statute that the brand-new Texas chapter of the Institute for Justice is challenging in state court, almost anyone who fiddles with computers for a living could be deemed a private investigator. The ramifications of falling into that category are serious, since a private investigator has to obtain a state-issued license, which requires a degree in criminal justice or a three-year apprenticeship.

I.J., which is challenging the law under the state constitution, represents three computer repair businesses whose owners worry that the state will decide they are offering private investigative services without a license, a crime punishable by up to a year in jail and financial penalties of up to $14,000. Since the same penalties apply to people who hire unlicensed investigators, I.J. also represents a businessman who uses computer repair services. "If I was required to get a P.I. license to run my business," says one plaintiff, "I'd have to shut my business down." Another adds:

This law is totally unfair. It requires using someone who is more expensive and may not be as good, and it uses government power to limit the number of competitors who are out there. It is bad for consumers, and it is bad for entrepreneurs.

The Private Security Bureau, which issues P.I. licenses, tries (PDF) to reassure computer technicians who don't want to be confused with private investigators:

The distinction between "computer forensics" and "data acquisition" is significant. We understand the term "computer forensics" to refer to the analysis of computer-based data, particularly hidden, temporary, deleted, protected or encrypted files, for the purpose of discovering information related (generally) to the causes of events or the conduct of persons. We would distinguish such a content-based analysis from the mere scanning, retrieval and reproduction of data associated with electronic discovery or litigation support services.

But the statute is broadly worded, defining an "investigations company" as a business that is paid to "obtain or furnish information related to," among other things, "the identity, habits, business, occupation, knowledge, efficiency, loyalty, movement, location, affiliations, associations, transactions, acts, reputation, or character of a person." I.J. argues that "the definition of 'investigation'...encompasses many common computer repair tasks."

[Thanks to Todd Wolf for the tip.]

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  • ellipsis||

    Libertarians, of all people, should have the ability to fix their own computer.

  • ||

    We need a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to practice any profession without a license.

  • Nigel Watt||

    It's a good thing the Texas legislature only meets once every two years. God knows what stupid crap they'd pull if they met yearly.

  • ||

    so if i hire geeks (rather then a PI) to search through the hard drive of say a dead spouse for legal information (or maybe just friend's email addresses so i can notify them for funeral arrangements) I could go to jail?

  • Invisible Finger||

    It'll just drive you buy another computer instead.

    More e-waste. Yep, sounds like government.

  • Tacos mmm...||

    Note to self: Don't google someone in Texas without a license.

  • ||

    Don't computer repair services often include "the analysis of computer-based data, particularly hidden, temporary, deleted, protected or encrypted files, for the purpose of discovering information related (generally) to the causes of events"? Especially if those events involve, say, my computer ceasing to function? Sounds to me like the Private Security Bureau is admitting techies are PIs, not denying it.

  • Ken||

    I think the statutory analysis is way off in most of the ZOMG! articles about this popping up on the net -- probably in part because of the purple prose of the new entity bringing suit.

    Links to the statutory language, plus statutory analysis, here.

  • Paul||

    I recently paid a service called Geeks on Site to figure out why my computer kept hanging and freezing.



    Quit browsing porn on the grey-market sites, install a good ad-sweeping program, keep your antivirus program up to date (avoid most of the free ones) and quit clicking "yes" to install the XXX Video Player. If the videos don't come in MPG/WMV/FLV/AVI format, you shouldn't be watching them.

    Total charge for advice: $0

    almost anyone who fiddles with computers for a living could be deemed a private investigator.



    I'm against this rule, of course, but when you fiddle with another man's (or woman's) computer, there's much you can learn. Oh the tales I could tell...

    I know who's husband is browsing gay porn!!!

  • Paul||

    Note to self: Don't google someone in Texas without a license.

    Note to self: Don't shoot an elephant in my pyjamas.

  • ||

    Two Words: SCREW TEXAS!

    JT
    http://www.FireMe.To/udi

  • Robert||

    This is just the Texas IOJ affiliate looking for trouble.

  • dpsc||

    Here's a good hint from someone who ought to have worked for the service "Porked by Dorks", as you were. Back up all your data regularly. Reinstall windows as necessary. After the reinstall don't execute anything from your backups. Stay with XP. Problem solved, to the degree that it can be.

    Linux or BSD is a better solution, but I recognize not everyone can use them- I am in Windows a great deal these days because they do not make a wide range of professional quality softsynths for Linux or BSD.

    The PI thing is too ridiculous to comment on. At least it might serve as an excuse for me when my mother's friends call me out of the blue expecting free help: "I'm sorry, I'm not licensed as a PI in your state. Good luck, and good-bye."

  • Fluffy||

    Shorter description of the Texas law:

    It is illegal to look at someone walking down the street and then tell someone else what you saw.

  • zoltan||

    Libertarians, of all people, should have the ability to pay someone without having the government interfere to fix their own computer.

    FTFY.

  • zoltan||

    It's a good thing the Texas legislature only meets once every two years. God knows what stupid crap they'd pull if they met yearly.

    No kidding. Every time they meet the quality of our science books goes down.

  • Episiarch||

    It is illegal to look at someone walking down the street and then tell someone else what you saw.

    Dude, did you see that gir... (sirens, cops show up and arrest me)

  • PITech||

    I don't get what IJ is after here. It seems pretty clear that a computer repair company is not paid to "obtain or furnish information related to,"..."the identity, habits...or character of a person."

    Instead, they're paid to repair a computer. And thus the statute doesn't apply.

    Unless, of course, they're specifically paid to analyze information drawn from a computer relevant to "the identity or habits...of a person" from a computer, which seems precisely what the legislature, rightly or wrongly, seeks to regulate.

  • sathi2000||

    It has just been brought to our attention that some children's face paints contain lead, which is a neurotoxin that can harm the brain at low doses. So, the face is the last place you would want to be applying this stuff ... and certainly not on our children! This info comes from a report by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a national
    http://www.mirei.com

  • ||

    Martha has always been as arrogant as hell (her East-European roots were showing), and when she was sent away, I rejoiced, for she's had finally got her comeuppance. The Brits are fully within their rights to deny entry to any ex-con. That's the law, and it can be enforced. Nothing wrong with that.
    Austin Roofing Company

  • rocks2010||

    It's a good thing the Texas legislature only meets once every two years. God knows what stupid crap they'd pull if they met yearly.
    State Divorce

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