Texas PIs Try to Legislate Themselves Out of Obsolescence, PC Techs Under Fire

In this day of MySpace, FaceBook, and GMail, digging up dirt on someone takes little more than guessing the name of their dog. Private Investigators, who long to return to the good old days of going through someone’s trash, staking out a house while leaving the tell-tale pile of cigarette butts, and wearing jackets with elbow patches, find that as more and more people move their “dirt” online, their breed of investigation is dying out.

In an attempt to regulate this obsolescence, the Texas Private Security Bureau, lobbied heavily by Private Investigator interests, has passed into law an update to the Private Security Act (HB 2833) which brings computer investigations under the umbrella of investigations that would require a private investigator license. Here is a section of bill in question, the new addition that affects computer investigations in bold:

Sec. 1702.104. INVESTIGATIONS COMPANY.

(a) A person acts as an investigations company for the purposes of this chapter if the person:

(1) engages in the business of obtaining or furnishing, or accepts employment to obtain or furnish, information related to: [...]

(B) the identity, habits, business, occupation, knowledge, efficiency, loyalty, movement, location, affiliations, associations, transactions, acts, reputation, or character of a person; [...]

(D) the cause or responsibility for a fire, libel, loss, accident, damage, or injury to a person or to property; [...]

(b) For purposes of Subsection (a)(1), obtaining or furnishing information includes information obtained or furnished through the review and analysis of, and the investigation into the content of, computer-based data not available to the public.

This text is written so broadly that it could mean just about anything. For example, if a PC Tech looks through a mother’s private computer (computer-based data not available to the public) to find out where her son has been online (the habits [...] of a person), then he has performed an investigation. Very obvious non-investigatory actions like installing a wireless network, installing a hardware upgrade, performing a system tune up, or setting up a home theater system would not fall under the scope of the law; but nearly everything else is in a gray area. When approached for a clarification of the law, the Texas Private Security Bureau held up the overreaching scope of the law. This is the partial text of their opinion; the full PDF is linked here:

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.

They are saying here that the above scenario of a mother attempting to find out the conduct of her son would run afoul of this law. If a PC repair customer got a virus and wanted to know why they did, the analysis of their browser history, temporary files, and hidden virus files would constitute an investigation and telling the customer how or why they got a virus infection would constitute the delivery of a report on this investigation. The TSB’s report goes on to put computer repair techs on notice and warn them and their customers of the penalties of violating this law.

Computer repair or support services should be aware that if they offer to perform investigative services, such as assisting a customer with solving a computer-related crime, they must be licensed as investigators.

[...]

Please be aware that providing or offering to provide a regulated service without a license is a criminal offense. TEX. OCC. CODE §§1702.101, 1702.388. Employment of an unlicensed individual who is required to be licensed is also a criminal offense. TEX. OCC. CODE §1702.386.

The penalty for performing investigations without a license is up to one year in jail and $14,000 in fines and penalties. Not only would I, or any PC repair tech, be liable, the customer would also be liable and would face the same penalties.

What makes this bill even more fun is that it was lobbied for exclusively by private investigator interest groups, surely under the specious claim of “protecting consumers”, and not one computer repair technician was asked for comment. The list of “witnesses” to this bill are listed here and here. Notice anything about the makeup of the witnesses?

So, now that many actions of Texas computer repair and service companies would require a PI license, now what? Surely a PI license is a simple matter of taking a test or paying a small fee? I’m afraid not. From their registration website, the Texas Private Security Bureau states the following requirements

  • three years of investigative experience or a bachelors degree in criminal justice for investigations company license
  • two consecutive years of legally acceptable experience in the guard company business
  • successful completion of a two-hundred-question examination testing ability of the manager applicant to operate the guard company under the provisions of the statute regulating them
  • criminal background check
  • submitting fingerprints to have on file with the FBI
  • ~$500 in registration fees, subscription fees, application fees, and fingerprint fees, payable yearly

These requirements would necessitate either Texas PC repair techs to close up shop for 3 years while completing an apprenticeship or to pursue an irrelevant college degree. On top of the hefty fees, this makes licensing a tough pill to swallow.

As with any law, exceptions exist, and one loophole is that a large repair shop, like the Geek Squad, would only be required to have one “full” private investigator on staff, and the other techs can simply have PI licenses bought for them ($500 per head per year) without needing to have the degree or apprenticeship. This makes the law doubly confusing as the ones who will be doing the sensitive data work will not actually need to have the mandated training or experience.

I have been contacted by a law firm who wishes to sue the state of Texas in order to get this law repealed or its scope narrowed significantly. I will be updating this blog with the progress of this situation, and hopefully PC Techs in Texas can come out clean.

UPDATE: I am proceeding with a lawsuit against the state of Texas to have this law repealed or changed. Please see this post for more information and updates.

16 Comments

  1. Doesn’t an officer with DPS have to disclose their identity when asked? What I want to know is: If a technician asked the customer, if they are employed by the Texas Department of Public Safety, before computer repair services are provided does the officer have to answer correctly? Maybe we need to verify our customers to keep from getting arrested, until this is all worked out. ~~Thanks, Geek Chick~~

    Reply
  2. I work for a computer repair company in Houston, and I looked at the bill, and it says the act takes effect on September 1st, 2007, all though I hadn’t heard of it until today. What’s going on with that? Why is everyone just now starting to talk about it? Am I missing something?

    Reply
  3. This is one of the many many bills that get passed every year without much discussion or coverage. There is only news and discussion on it now because the Institute of Justice filed a lawsuit only last week to get the law changed.

    Reply
  4. The language of both the law and the Bureau’s opinions paint the central term, “investigation”, with strokes that are far too broad. If the case is truly that it does not apply to all computer repair people, then great, let’s go and talk to a judge about it and fix up the language in the law.

    I’m going to defer to the opinion of the Institute for Justice, with scads of lawyers and 18 years of experience doing this sort of thing. They surely can read between the lines better than you or I or other bloggers who have been weighing in on this issue.

    Reply
  5. God help you. If this law doesn’t get repealed in Texas, you better believe every other state won’t be far behind.

    It’s another way to collect fees, fines and taxes so it won’t be hard to convince lawmakers to suck us dry. I’ll pursue my lifelong dream of opening a gaming pc builder if this comes to my state. No windows fixes, reimage only 8).

    What a bunch of vultures…

    -Viz

    Reply
  6. The Texas Department of Public Safety’s Private Security Bureau website was just updated, at http://www.txdps. state.tx. us/psb/AgendaIte mXIV.pdf, to clarify that only computer repair technicians who are seeking computer data to use as evidence in a criminal or civil hearing must be licensed by the Bureau under the Texas Private Security Act (Chapter 1702, Texas Occupations Code). The update is entitled “Minutes of July 23, 2008 Private Security Board Meeting, Agenda Item XIV, Regarding Computer Repair Technicians.”
    The portion of the 23 July Private Security Board minutes that are now considered policy of the Private Security Bureau when enforcing the forensic computer repair issue is as follows:

    “(a) Information obtained through the review and analysis of the content of computer-based data with the intent to use such data a evidence in a criminal or civil hearing must be obtained and furnished by an investigations company license under the Act or by an individual exempted from licensure under §1702.323 (a) of the Act. (b) The repair or maintenance of a computer does not require licensing under the Act, even if during the course of the repair or maintenance the person discovers information described by §1702.104 (a) (1).”
    The Texas Occupations Code can be found online at http://tlo2. tlc.state. tx.us/statutes/ oc.toc.htm.

    Reply
  7. While the minutes of that meeting are promising, a meeting’s minutes nor a declaration of intent have the force of law. If what they say is true, then I would be very happy to see the text of the law changed next session. Until then, though, their words and promises have no weight in the court of law.

    Reply
  8. David,

    I was glad to have met you online a few nights ago. Talking with you about this ridiculous law relieved my tension over the matter drastically. Being a full time IT student and trying to build a small client base for my home based business is not an easy task. When I heard this law requires me to get a PI license, I about lost all hope of ever helping my children through college because my own education is already costing me a fortune and if we have to throw in a BA in Criminal Justice, well then “Houston, we have a problem”. I have written my Congressman on the matter and I plan to blog all over the place to get the word out. I am sure there are many people who just are not aware of this law. I only found out by trying to keep my new people network alive and well by wishing a collegue a Happy Thanksgiving. He told me this new law has put him out of business. I was sorry to hear that bit of news, not just because it took away a business connection from me, but because it stole a person’s dream from them. I hope to do more to help in getting this law changed in any way I can. I will work on it continuously.

    Reply
  9. David: This Texas legislation is causing problems for robo-cop traffic enforcement. A Texas judge said the company running a red-light camera was acting illegally because it did not have a private investigator license. On the basis of this ruling, motorists are challenging traffic tickets. See deails: http://legal-beagle.typepad.com/wrights_legal_beagle/2008/12/e-discovery-forensics-private-investigator-license-for-computer-data-collection-and-assessment.html –Ben

    Reply
  10. The legislation as written leaves too much to interpretation. It’s a little frustrating, as a Texan, to see this having been enacted. I am hoping for its repeal along with the other commentors here, as it needs refinement for it to be at all helpful.

    Reply
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  13. I really question the reason why you branded this posting, “Texas PIs Try to Legislate Themselves Out of Obsolescence, PC Techs Under Fire | Citronix Tech Services – Houston Computer Repair”.
    Anyway I actually enjoyed the post!Thanks a lot-Paul

    Reply
  14. I’m now not positive the place you are getting your information, however good topic. I needs to spend some time finding out more or working out more. Thanks for great info I used to be on the lookout for this information for my mission.

    Reply

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