An edited version of this section was published in the July/August 2019 issue of
PI Magazine under the title “BEFORE THE INTERNET – THERE WAS SECTION 15",
"A LOOK AT THE PIONEER PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS OF THE COMPUTER WORLD”.
PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS ENTER THE COMPUTER AGE
As the 1990’s approached, electronic and computer equipment was introduced that would change how a business would operate. A group of private investigators began to embrace this early technology, becoming computer experts, communicating online with each other and using new information sources. These investigators were members of the Compuserve Online Investigators Network – COIN Section 15.
When private investigators needed to communicate with colleagues or clients, documents were either mailed or personally delivered by a courier service. Soon the tele-copier or facsimile machine became a necessary piece of office equipment. The instant “send and receive” feature of the fax machine replaced the services of the Postal Office, private overnight delivery services and couriers for the sending of documents and reports. The first fax machines were large and expensive but evolved into affordable desktop machines and every office had at least one. Computers would eventually replace fax machines by enabling the scanning and sending of documents via electronic mail.
The personal computer was in its fledgling stage. The first 300 baud modems would display the letters appearing on the monochrome monitor individually as the sentence progressed as if typed in slow-motion. The first computer memory source were 5.25" floppy disks (later 3.5" disks) and manually inserted into the disk drive. Both external disk types eventually yielded to internal hard drives in use today. Soon “read-only” compact disk storage media was introduced, but it took years before they become available at a reasonable price.
Online communication began using analog technology over the wire-based voice telephone system (referred to as "plain old telephone service" or POTS). The first communication networks were simple bulletin board systems (BBS) and were only active when the owner would plug the POTS line into the host computer modem. These BBS were soon replaced with national dial-up information services that charged users subscription fees.
During this time period few private investigators were using computers. Even fewer investigators were using them for online communication.
ONLINE NETWORK FOR PI's IS ESTABLISHED
In 1989, private investigators using the Compuserve Information Service (Cis) began posting messages to each other in Section 15 of the "Work from Home" Forum. Originally called "Nate's Place" the group name was changed to the "Compuserve Online Investigators Network" or "COIN Section 15" (later just referred to as "Section 15"). It was was the brainchild of its founder and System Operator (SYSOP) Nate Lenow. Nate, a former government investigator, began working as a private investigator before it was even a regulated and licensed profession in Tennessee.
In late 1990 another group of PI’s was started in the restricted Law Enforcement Special Interest Group (SIG) of the General Electric Network for Information Exchange (GEnie). This SIG was the first online network for law enforcement officers, the private investigator section was started and operated by SYSOP Robert Kowalkowski, a former law enforcement officer now a private investigator from Michigan.
Neither group charged PI’s to access the private networks. Both volunteer SYSOPs had similar law enforcement backgrounds and soon became long distance friends and colleagues. After a couple years, Nate recognized the importance of online networking among investigators. In 1992/1993, Nate proposed a merger of the two groups to enlarge the network and asked Robert to join him as the Assistant System Operator of Section 15. Member investigtors of GEnie that were not already on Compuserve switched services and joined Section 15.
Compared to the communication platforms available today this networking method was antiquated. At that time, it was the best means of simultaneously communicating with multiple group members all over the country. Members would create a topic and post a message. When other members signed on to the system, they were able to read and comment about the posted messages. These investigators not only posted messages about their cases, they regularly shared new information sources, techniques used to locate someone or details on new equipment purchased.
As the Compuserve system grew and continued to add services it was quickly taking lead over the other online communication services that were available. This helped make Section 15 the “go-to place” for online investigators wanting to network with each other. As more investigators began using computers, word spread about this online network and the membership grew. Soon the private investigators that using Prodigy and America OnLine (AOL) services began to migrate to Compuserve and joined COIN Section 15.
An offline networking tool available to investigators during this time was the printed member directory of the Texas based “National Association of Investigative Specialists” (NAIS). Along with this directory, the NAIS published and sold investigation “how to” manuals from entry level to advanced specialty reference books. These texts were authored by Ralph Thomas, the owner of the NAIS, as well providing many members a platform to publish their work. Later when the NAIS established an internet website, the directory was listed online.
Another directory source available was the “Investigators Online Network” (ION), an investigator referral service owned by Leroy Cook, a marketeer from Arizona. They offered the services of its members to the insurance industry, corporations and private client’s. ION communicated with its members and clients using the Western Union proprietary packet-switched e-mail system. Premium members of ION paid an annual fee to be the first referred local investigations in exchange for a percentage of the client’s fee.
Searchable online investigative databases began to appear. The credit bureaus started to provide investigators direct access into their dial-up systems, allowing a real-time search by social security number or by name and address producing instant results. Previously this search required a trip to their office or by sending the request via fax which would often take an entire day for a reply.
Some of the first consumer record databases for in-house use were on compact disks (CD). These searchable CD’s included records from telephone books, city directories that would cross-reference names and addresses, and later, a company in Utah compiled a database of death records. These CD collections cost several hundred dollars each and were sold by state or region, with annual updates. Investigators would often post a message for our colleagues to check the databases they owned. Before these simple databases were available, investigators would spend several hours
in the library reference section where several rows of shelves were devoted to years of annual telephone books and city directories.
As technology grew and costs dropped, the Freedom of Information Act helped open the door for companies to start buying public records stored as micro-film, micro-fiche and 10.5” magnetic data tape reels. These records were then converted and added to searchable information databases. The technique of data-mining and data-fusion evolved and allowed converting of various record formats and combining this data into a searchable system. This later developed into the large investigative database companies that are the investigation standard today.
The Section 15 investigators were an elite group of research professionals that were old school “boots on the ground” investigators that used this new computer technology to their advantage. These investigators knew what to look for, where the information was located, how to retrieve it, and most importantly, how to interpret the information that was found. They were not only field experts but developed into a premier group of expert public record researchers that were on the ground floor with this new online research tool, learning to use searchable investigative databases from time they became available to the private investigator profession.
These investigators were the first to beta test new investigative databases when they came online. In 1992, one of these new searchable systems that worked closely with members of Section 15 was Database Technologies owned by computer programmer Hank Asher. Originally only containing Florida motor vehicle records and designed for the insurance industry, it soon added records from each state, cross reference directories and consumer records. The Section 15 members were some of the first 100 investigator accounts of the new system and Asher always made time to talk to them. He was known for not only offering database search suggestions, but also for discussing other information that should be obtained and added to the system.
No longer just local investigators, the Section 15 members were part of a network that allowed them to provide clients with coverage across the country using their online associates. When a case required research in another city or state, it was no longer necessary to travel across the country and hire someone in the area without knowing what kind of work they would produce. Members now had fellow experts that they could contact and rely on to conduct a quality investigation, whether it was pulling a court record, running a vehicle registration, interviewing a witness or even a last-minute surveillance. The members all helped one another.
The Section 15 network was an incubator for its members to become successful leaders in the profession. These investigators were some of the best in the intelligence community. Their backgrounds were mostly former law enforcement or military, others were civilian security and insurance company investigators. They had online database research skills and experience that allowed them to trace and locate their targets anywhere in the country. They became experts at locating missing persons, criminals and witnesses. Section 15 members entered the private investigation and information research profession and continued to be successful throughout their careers. Many are still in business several decades later.
The quality and experience of Section 15 investigators was recognized by the media and their cases were regularly featured in newspaper, magazine and television news articles. They also appeared on television investigative programs including “60 Minutes” and “America’s Most Wanted”. Another series devoted to the cases a Section 15 member was aired on the cable network Investigation Discovery channel.
The cable channel USA Network series “Case Closed” aired for two seasons during the years 1993 and 1994. Weekly episodes featured several cases and began with its host, actor Stacy Keach, announcing that “Case Closed” had retained the services of “America's top private investigators”. The show was developed to assist people calling for help "when the police can't or won't help" or when they could not afford the cost of hiring a private investigator for a vital or life-threatening case. Most of the investigators retained by “Case Closed” and featured on the series were members of Section 15.
The CompuServe Online Investigator Network - Section 15 over the years continued to grow from a handful of investigators to a nationwide fellowship. Members gladly helped each other with complex investigations. Case referrals within the network grew.
The cost of the personal computers continued to drop and became even more affordable. The online communication system known as the "World Wide Web" was released to the public in late 1991. It would be a few more years before the Internet, as we know it today, would be used in every home and business.
Electronic-mail or "e-mail" was no longer limited to communicating between subscribers on the same information service. The ability to correspond with anyone in the world that had an e-mail account became the new standard form of communication.
Private Investigators that did not become part of the computer revolution and information age were soon contracting other investigators to conduct online research for them. They quickly discovered that they could not compete with those in the profession that were embracing and using this technology. New opportunities searching public records and online databases created a new occupation known as "information brokers". They would conduct research and locate information for other investigators. In most states, this is regulated and falls under the licensing requirements of a Private Investigator as they are conduct activity research on individuals for a fee.
INVESTIGATOR ASSOCIATIONS BEGAN USING THE INTERNET
Online communication networks on the Internet progressed rapidly thus taking the investigative profession into the new information age of the upcoming millennium. Private investigator associations established years and even decades before began to utilize the Internet. The World Association of Detectives (WAD), the International Intelligence Network (INTELLENET), the Council of International Investigators (CII), the National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI) and local state associations established websites and used e-mail listserv's to communicate with members. These organizations were now leading the online networking of the private investigator profession.
SECTION 15 IS OFFICIALLY RETIRED
The Society of Retired Section 15 Investigators
Section 15 “the intelligence and information exchange network” was the predecessor to investigators internet networking as we know it today.
In the year 2000, after eleven years of successful operation, it was now operating on an outdated communication platform. Members made the decision to officially retire the Compuserve Online Investigators Network, COIN - Section 15. Many of the members of Section 15 became life-long friends, colleagues and continue to remain in contact with each other years later. To preserve Section 15 memories, a website documenting its history, along with an alumni directory of the original members, was established and is located at “www.Section15.us”.