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Spy vs. Private Eye – Intelligence vs. Investigations

Cat is hiding under rug -
The difference between espionage and investigations

Often, the term intelligence gathering and investigation are wrongly used by private investigators. Let's take a brief moment to understand the difference in detecting or investigating and intelligence gathering. Is there a difference in espionage and private investigation?

What is the difference between intelligence gathering and private investigations? The answer is that intelligence is bits of data, human sources, and other forms of information gathering. That information is gathered and then sifted through to see if anything is usable (actionable intelligence). An investigation is very different in that it has a singular focus, the matter in which the detective is investigating. A private investigator or police investigator may be looking at a homicide, or property theft, or any number of focused investigative efforts.

Understand the Difference in Intelligence & Investigations

The Difference in Intelligence and Investigation

Intelligence is information gathered from many sources and may be used to take some sort of action, providing that the intelligence is deemed actionable. Intelligence gathering is usually conducted by governments, corporations looking for competitive advantages and law enforcement when they want to gather information that may be used at a later time to aid in investigations.

A private investigation is usually legal in nature and aids in proving something one way or the other. For example a homicide investigation is aimed at finding who the killer is. A cheating partner investigation is aimed at determining if the person is really cheating.

Private investigators conduct an investigation more than they conduct intelligence operations.

Spy Vs. Private Detective

So what is a spy and what is a private detective? Well that’s a simple question to answer in that one is deemed illegal and the other is legal. Can you guess which is which?

Everyone always paints the picture of the proverbial spy cloaked in black and able to break into anything; barely escaping before they are caught.

On the other hand, what does a private investigator look like? Yeah, like you and me. That’s because private investigators blend in and they discreetly go about legally obtaining open-source information, conducting interviews, finding people and connecting with sources that have knowledge that can aid them in their private investigation.

Espionage Vs. Private Investigation

Espionage is a big word and you can read about espionage and understand more. Espionage can be government sponsored, or industrial espionage is motivated by commercial concerns. Espionage is generally regarded as illegal, which opens a can of political worms, but that is the general idea…clandestinely obtain information that you have no right to access.

A private investigation, on the other hand, is legal. Provided that you hire a licensed private investigator and they follow the local laws in their jurisdiction (usually a State).

Private Investigators and Intelligence Gathering

Can Private Investigators Gather Intelligence?

Yes. When a private investigator gathers intelligence, it is usually handled much differently than a private investigation. Intelligence does not attempt to prove anything, it simply aids in in making more informed decisions by the client. To use a military term "actionable intelligence". Although "actionable intelligence is meant to be so accurate a decision maker could push a button and get the desired result which is a rarity.

Intelligence is gathered in many forms, none of which we will discuss in this brief article, but suffice it to say, intelligence, once sorted and sifted, can aid in an investigation or help a client understand their competitive landscape better, among other uses of intelligence.

Example of Intelligence Verses Investigation

A quick example which will clearly define the differences between providing an investigation and providing intelligence can be illustrated in this way:

Suppose you were preparing for a civil suit. You need to know who witnessed the incident and what they know, saw or heard. You locate where the witnesses live and you interview them and provide your client the information that they can use in their civil case. This is an example of an investigation.

Now consider if you were the Acme Corporation and you wanted to understand more about your competition. We look for information or intelligence in which you can use to better understand the products, services, customers, distribution routes, etc of the competitor. The Acme Corporation then decides out of this giant pot of intelligence, what can be used in their own marketing, development, research and distribution. This helps them to understand their competitive landscape and make decisions on how to keep up with their competitors..

During intelligence gathering, we can collect focused information or a slew of ethically obtained open-source information and let our clients decide how it can be used, offering some interpretation, but ultimately they decide if it is is in their corporations best interest, now or in the future.

What’s The Difference In Espionage and Private Investigation

This is the question this whole article is based on. Asked by a real person who really had not thought about the details.

Understandably so.

Consumers see police dramas, spy movies and private detective shows and that can influence a person to wonder. It can be hard to know where the line is drawn. What is legal and what is not legal in the world of espionage and private investigation.

Being clear, espionage has nothing to do with a private investigator or an investigation. Yes, both gather information of sorts, but one is legal and one is illegal. Some of the biggest threats to US economy come from industrial espionage.


The difference is clear. Intelligence gathering is not the same as an investigation. Just like a spy is not the same as a private investigator or espionage is not the same as a private investigation.

Do you feel you need a private investigation or an intelligence operation? Contact Vidocq & Co. Bureau of Information.


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