As millions of Ashley Madison users’ details are leaked online, one private investigator tells Sophie Curtis how technology is helping people catch out their errant partners
Have you ever felt like you’re being watched? In the past, spying on someone meant lingering outside their home or following their car, but these days technology does most of the heavy lifting, so spies and private investigators can just tap in and watch events unfold.
It emerged on Tuesday that millions using cheating website Ashley Madison had had their personal details exposed online, but the incident is far from the only way that straying spouses are being exposed.
As TV programmes like HBO’s The Wire and NBC’s The Blacklist show, people’s personal gadgets can quickly become the source of their own downfall. Mobile phones in particular can easily be turned into spying devices, thanks to their built-in cameras, microphones and GPS chips.
According to private investigator Richard Martinez, a simple piece of software installed on a mobile phone can allow a jealous spouse to monitor all their partner’s movements, texts, emails and calls.
“If you can provide us with the IMEI number from his mobile, that’s all you need. Every time he sends or receives an email or a text, your mobile phone will get a copy, as well as the number it’s come from and gone to,” said Mr Martinez.
“Your mobile phone will also have the GPS location of his mobile phone 24/7, and you get surround sound as well, so you can then listen in on his mobile phone without him knowing.”
Mr Martinez said that, over the last few years, people have increasingly been becoming their own private investigators, either by physically following the person they want to know more about or discreetly carrying out their own digital surveillance.
While both methods might achieve the same results, there is a much lower risk of being caught using technology. The fact that everyone carries around connected devices with them all day long makes monitoring their movements almost absurdly easy.
Mr Martinez described how one of his clients used spy-phone software to intercept texts sent by her husband to another woman arranging to meet her at a restaurant, trace his location using GPS, and access the audio on the phone to eavesdrop on him and his lover talking over the restaurant table.
“That one item has given so much control and power to customers to monitor their partners,” he said. “To me, it helps society in a way, because it hopefully discourages adultery, and it can also prevent the stress on children if their parents are going through a separation.”
However, it is not always possible for people to carry out their own surveillance. Often, if a partner has been particularly careful to cover his or her tracks, or the client is too busy or simply doesn’t want to know all the gory details, a private investigator can step in to carry out the surveillance.
In these cases, as well as using spy-phone software, private investigators will also carry out physical surveillance using hidden cameras concealed in their glasses, buttons or even Bluetooth earpieces to collect photographic evidence, as well as location trackers attached to the underside of vehicles.
This evidence could be collected either through passive surveillance or by setting up a “honeytrap”, whereby the private investigator sends in a member of the opposite sex to meet the target in a wine bar or club, and captures their interaction on video.
Mr Martinez said he is able to get around entrapment laws by making sure the target is not under the influence of alcohol and that the honeytrapper (what Mr Martinez describes as an “integrity tester”) behaves reactively, not proactively.
“We carry out the test early in the evening, we don’t touch, so there is no physical action, only verbal, and the responses are purely reactive and not proactive, so we won’t ask them for their number or a date, we’ll just see what they do,” he said.
“The integrity tester will be of equivalent attractiveness, so we won’t put a model with a minger. We try and keep it as fair as possible. But more often than not, if a customer is paying us to test their integrity, they’ve got good grounds to believe they’re going to fall for it.”
This may sound highly unethical, or even illegal. A 2012 Radio 4 documentary called Crouching Low, Hidden Camera claimed that there isno regulatory system for private detectives in the UK, and that bugging, phone hacking and bribery take place as a matter of course.
However, Mr Martinez, who runs the private detective agency Expedite, claims that everything he does is above board. After spending some time as an officer in the RAF Reserves, he gained a diploma in private investigations, which covered espionage, surveillance, counter-surveillance, tracing, debt recovery, process serving, commercial and domestic investigations.
He is also well versed in regulations like the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which advises on what kinds of surveillance you can carry out before it is considered intrusive.
Mr Martinez claims that Article 8 of the Human Rights Act allows you to infringe on somebody’s privacy, as long as it’s not for financial gain, but for “emotional wellbeing and safeguard”.
Tapping a phone is considered acceptable as long as two out of three parties on the call are aware that the conversation is being recorded, and a vehicle can be tracked as long as the tracker is not inside the car and does not affect its performance.
Mr Martinez also said that many judges will choose to overlook how evidence was obtained “for the greater good and in the interests of justice” – as long as there was no damage to property or injury to anyone, and as long as the information gathered was relevant to the case.
It is not only cheating partners that private detectives collect evidence on. Mr Martinez said he also frequently tracks down people evading debt recovery and payment, and also carries out surveillance on teenagers on behalf of their worried parents.
He said that some parents in high-profile positions, like celebrities or judges, don’t want the negative attention that an errant teenage child might bring, so they hire an extra pair of eyes and ears to discreetly monitor their child.
If the teenager is caught shoplifting, or hanging out with a particular gang, the parents can then take action to bring them back on the straight and narrow. Mr Martinez said that he is now getting more work from Muslim parents, concerned that their children could be becoming involved in extremist activity.
However, there are some lines that Mr Martinez refuses to cross. For example, he said that recording inside private properties is “an absolute no-go for us”. He also tries to avoid accidental intrusive surveillance – like if there is a house in the background with a child playing in the garden.
He also doesn’t get involved in obtaining information from one company to benefit another company. Mr Martinez carries out due diligence on all his clients, and if there is any hint that an investigation may be financially motivated, or have violent implications, he will turn it down.
“Apart from following the law, we do have moral guidelines,” he said. “If somebody phoned me up and said they wanted your address details, I would always be checking, asking due diligence questions like what would be the reason? What yould you do with that information?”
One of the services that Mr Martinez offers is lie detector tests. He has a lie detector machine that measures breathing, heart rate and voice, and claims to have a 90 per cent accuracy rate.
Mr Martinez said there are methods that people use to try and cheat lie detectors, such as digging their nail into their finger, biting their tongue or clenching their buttocks to increase their stress levels when they are telling the truth, so there is less variation when they are lying.
However, Mr Martinez says he monitors for these things during tests, and even has a seat pad that can register if you are clenching your buttocks.
He added that, today, technology makes it very difficult for a person to fall off the grid because any online interaction leaves a paper trail.
“If you ever fill in an online form or an election questionnaire or get a cold call or anything like that, quite often your information will go onto a database,” he said.
“We have a PI database, and we can also purchase databases from debt recovery and credit search agencies, and then we can find that person from that point, or if that’s a little bit out of date, we can use it as a lead to them make discreet enquiries.”
He added: “When we make door-to-door enquiries, it’s amazing how helpful neighbours will be when it comes to giving information.”
The Blacklist is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.