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.]