With a background in history, research and then law enforcement, Lily shares how her journey landed her as a professional investigator looking into fraud and money laundering. She shares insights into what her day-to-day job entails and why she has moved out of some fields of investigations and into new ones.
"Something that I've learned from my work is that there is not actually an algorithm or anything you can do with coding that will replace the investigative mindset. Understanding patterns and trends in a dataset is something that can be approached by an algorithm, but cannot actually be done by an algorithm.”
About the speaker
Lily* is a professional investigator who lives in the United States. She specializes in complex fraud and anti-money laundering investigations, and researches publicly-traded companies and their directors for a consulting firm. She was trained as a historian and archival researcher before entering the investigative industry. Lily is a contributing writer to Tactical Tech’s Exposing the Invisible Kit.
*Name has been changed
There's a difference between someone who just, you know, is researching things, and someone who's an investigator. And I'm not sure exactly how to distill that difference, but it's something that I sense in conversation, or in learning about how someone sees the world, or how they approach a question and how their curiosity is expressed.
I'm a professional investigator. I did not know that I wanted to be an investigator, I didn't know that it was a job that a person could do.
I grew up in a very old house. In my dad's office, in his closet, there was a sort of trove of items from my family – my ancestors, I suppose – that I didn't know about, that only came out when we were moving house. And in this closet there was an old Pan-Am briefcase and inside of it there were papers. And there were a series of letters from my great grandmother that she had written to her husband in 1945. And they were – it was like six pages written out in long hand – and it was a letter about some of her deepest feelings about their relationship. There were other things in there, like a lock of my grandmother's hair, a date book from the mid-forties of my great-grandmother's, that had all of her appointments in it. And to me, it just felt like this magical moment of just feeling really connected, in a really almost shocking way, emotionally to these people who I didn't really know. My grandmother died when I was three, so I didn't have a lot of memories of her, and seeing her baby hair – like the lock of hair from when she was born – was kind of shocking to me, in a visceral way. And, like, the word ‘evidence’ is not right for this situation, but it just felt like this residue from the past that was becoming more real, just in front of my eyes. But it almost felt a bit like time travel to me, and that was I think what set me on a bit of a path of this curiosity about the past and about truth. I mean, I was really young at the time, so this sounds obvious I think to adults, but, you know, black-and-white photos were actually taken in colour. And there were the kind of immediacy and reality that we live in our day-to-day lives – that is something that has extended throughout the past and that, you know, we can't recreate it, but we can access it maybe in small moments.
When I was studying history in university, I had a desire to try and present, as closely as possible, a version of truth that was as close to reality as possible. There's a lot of theoretical academic works that will kind of discuss back and forth: What is the nature of truth? What is the nature of reality? How close can human documentary evidence really get to recreating something that happened in the past, and how ethical is it to try and present yourself as an objective recorder of history? And I found those conversations to be really fascinating and exciting, and I wanted to participate in it and create something that was not necessarily saying that it was the truth, but was putting together evidence that maybe hadn't been considered together, and seeing what sort of narrative came out.
I ended up working as an investigative paralegal at a public prosecutor's office. The profession that I was supposedly training for, or trying to determine if I wanted to follow, was that of a lawyer. And I figured out pretty quickly I didn't want to be a lawyer. And part of the reason why, is that when you're working in a prosecutor's office, or working in the field of law in general, sort of the way, at least in a lot of the criminal and civil litigation courts, the way it works is that you have this body of evidence that is shared among both sides – among the prosecutors and among the defence attorneys, or among,bin a civil case, it's among both sides – who are arguing on different avenues. You have a shared body of evidence, but the task at hand is to selectively emphasize and de-emphasize pieces of that evidence to forward an argumentative version of the truth that supports your side and your side only. And some people I worked with really loved that gamesmanship and found it really attractive and exciting and fun. And to me, I found it incredibly, excruciatingly frustrating, because I felt like, when I'm looking at this body of evidence, I'm seeing things come out and subjectively emphasizing and de-emphasizing certain parts to forward an end- just felt so wrong and unethical to me. Put me in a position where I was assisting a process that was sort of weaponizing investigation, weaponizing like an evidenced narrative in order to drive towards a certain outcome. And usually that outcome was, you know, putting somebody in jail. And that's a process that I didn't want to be a part of any more and, you know, was pretty ambivalent about in the beginning. But I felt very personally implicated by it by the end of my work there and transitioning into corporate investigation was a way for me to kind of build on those skills and experiences and that interest, but be involved in a much more – maybe not much more – but be involved in a more neutral way.
Nowadays I work for an investigative practice at a consulting firm. A lot of the work that I do on a day-to-day basis involves looking into the backgrounds of companies and their directors. There are certain pieces of information that I am basically almost certain to find. And in some ways that makes the work a bit less. . . it can be somewhat less interesting than some of the more personal archival research or political research that I might engage in. Just because you know what's going to be out there. So for example, if I'm researching a company, the majority of the companies that I'm researching are based in the United States, as in, incorporated in the US. And that means that I'm going to be able to find the registration information for that company. I'm going to be able to find a fair amount, usually, of public information about it. And the kinds of companies that we are tasked with researching are usually quite high profile. And so it's more about looking through what is going to be there – which is recorded documents, like official documents, media profile, financial results, or publicly filed disclosures with market regulatory bodies – and sort of looking through that and creating a narrative out of it and looking at it like as a third-party outsider: what do I see here as someone who understands these industries and has done a lot of these reports, comparatively? What is normal and what's not? What is a red flag and what's not? I would say that as an individual, if I was researching some of these people or organizations on my private time, I might go into a really long, deep rabbit hole, trying to find whatever I could possibly find. But you know, when I'm working for a client, I have a budget and I have to limit myself.
Some people might disagree with me about this, but my experience so far has shown me that if you devote enough time to looking into something, you are probably going to find something. You may not find what you are looking for, but you're going to find something. And so for me, what that kind of means is that, if I'm researching something for a client, let's say, and I'm trying to prove or document where somebody used to be employed between let's say 1995 and 2005, and I haven't been able to find where they used to work. If I have an unlimited amount of time, I'm almost certain I'll be able to find something. And that could be looking in archived websites, looking in sometimes alumni magazines from old universities that have only been uploaded to one or two websites or something. But those are kind of more obvious examples. Sometimes it's even weirder than that. But I know that if I keep looking, I'll find it. But I just don't have the time. I'm just not able to spend that much time on it because, you know, this is my job now and so I won't get paid for that, unfortunately. I feel like one of the skills that I've had to develop as an investigator that was–– that has been made a lot easier for me because of my work, where you know, I'm not going to get paid for spending twenty hours looking into something irrelevant, is sort of deciding ahead of time, is this rabbit hole worth going into? How deep should I go before I turn back? Is the information at the end ultimately that important or not? And I'm not sure if there's a difference between a rabbit hole and a fishing expedition, which is another term that a lot of investigators will throw around. I'd say that for me, the rabbit hole usually means that there's something at the end. You just don't know how deep it's going to go. The fishing expedition is sort of more. . odds are unlikely that you're going to find what you want.
The reason that my company gets hired to investigate and report information that is technically all public: you know, when some people hear that they may sort of feel like, ‘well, if it's just out there, then why do you need someone to be paid, you know, to bring it together and to research it’? And what I have learned and what is just, you know, true: First of all, there's, you know, the basic, just reality that not everyone has the time to look into different sources of information and pull things together. They may not know how to access even public information, which is sometimes recorded and in databases or repositories that are somewhat confusing to access and require a bit of experience or training. But something that I have seen and that I think is kind of a fundamental aspect of learning how to research and create evidence out of public information is the fact that at least in the United States and in a lot of countries – but this isn't universal – there are certain kinds of information about companies and businesses and individuals and court cases, stuff like that, that is required to be filed publicly, that is published. But that doesn't mean that it's easy to find or readily accessible by anybody. And so kind of what that means to me is that a lot of this information that's published is, you know, potentially damaging or risky for businesses or individuals to have published. And I will admit that I don't know enough about the history of how all these things came together or how they were regulated, et cetera, to really like–– to really have a strong narrative around it. But I will say that the way that information is stored that is meant to be public is done in such a way to protect the people whose information is being published. And that means protect them from criticism, from interrogation, from public opinion – things like who owns a building, who's recorded on a deed as the owner of a building. For example, if the owner of a building is a corporation, depending on where that corporation was registered or incorporated, the people who are involved in that corporation, their identities may not be public. And kind of pulling together all of these sources of information that are intentionally kept separate is sort of what I am... you know, that's what I'm good at. That's the whole point of what I do, is to sort of look at these disparate sources of information. And the way that I've described it in the past is that they have mutual significance to each other, pulling them together and sort of seeing how they complement each other and create a more complete image of an actual fact, or create an image of truth or reality. In terms of the open source or public information investigations that I perform, when we hit the limit of what is publicly available we usually don't try too far past that. There are certain sources that we will use though, that are not necessarily directly available to the public.Those will be sort of like proprietary third-party databases that you have to purchase subscriptions for, which are extremely expensive. You know, one of the great benefits of my job right now is that I get all of those database access codes, and I don't have to pay for them. And it's amazing what kind of information you get. And that could be, you know, entries on international sanctions databases; it could be finding people's address histories for the last ten years; finding phone numbers, emails, stuff like that. And that information is not technically publicly available, I suppose. And so that is covered under certain use cases legally. So my company has a private investigation license that I work under, and that I was added to when I got this job.
I think that there's an emphasis, even perhaps an overemphasis, in the sort of trend of algorithmic investigation or coding as the ultimate and final tool for understanding information and running algorithms is going to be the way that we understand info and work with large data sets. And there's an aspect of that that is certainly true, where if you do not have someone working with those skills, who has the ability to run an algorithm of our large dataset and parse the results, you are not going to be able necessarily to really like get into something like that. But something that I've learned from my work is that there is not actually an algorithm or anything you can do with coding that will replace the investigative mindset. Understanding patterns and trends in a dataset is something that can be approached by an algorithm, but cannot actually be done by an algorithm.Let's say that we're trying to determine if a person who's on a sanctions list is a customer of a bank. You might get a result from one of these algorithms that there's someone with the exact same name, but their birth date is totally wrong. And you're like, okay, it's not the same person. But then if you're actually a human being looking at that record of that customer, then you kind of look at the date of birth that's recorded. And it's like, ‘January 1st, 1900’. And you're like, ‘okay, well clearly that is not actually the person's birthday, and that was a default thing that was just entered’. And that's an instance of human error in the data set. An algorithm will discount that immediately, but a human being will know that that was, you know, when you're entering data into a form, that might be the default and if you just leave it, then you leave it. And sort of having that understanding of, there are people behind all of this, is really important and essential, and really influences the results of what you're doing. And people act organically, and people make mistakes, and people do strange things. That is I think what a lot of like investigation hinges on, is finding those moments where either a pattern is formed or a pattern is broken. The human aspect of it is really essential.
I learned in some of my training, or just in feedback from a colleague, that sometimes someone will leave a job and you can't really find a specific reason why somebody left in media or other sources, but there are certain kind of coded language that as you become more familiar with the fields, you will learn the significance of. You know, ‘left her position as CEO at XYZ corporation to spend more time with family”. That is almost always a red herring. There's almost always some other reason, which could be a disagreement in leadership or some kind of financial failure, or some other kind of scandal. And that's sort of like a tip off of, actually you should look into this more and not just say, ‘oh yeah, of course they want to spend more time with their family, cause that's how I feel’. People don't make those sorts of decisions when they are executives. I'd say ninety percent of the time. But just sort of having like a more critical eye on the way that things are presented, having the ability to both trust when a source is correct and accurate and I can rely on it, and then also knowing when I need to interrogate something further, that is a skill that has come up over time for me. I mean, I think it's hard to talk about this stuff, without it coming off as gatekeeping a bit, because I think that, for me, it's not so much that you can't learn these things unless you've been doing this for six years. It's just that it does take time to develop that mindset and you need experience. And I think it's actually kind of a valuable thing, because the only way you can learn it is just by doing it, which I think is really beautiful and exciting because it just invites you to start. But I know that it can also be intimidating to feel like you might make a mistake or misinterpret something if you're. . . if you don't have those instincts or that experience.
By the time I left the public prosecutor's office, I was pretty unsure about where my career was going to go. And I was feeling a lot of ambivalence about the work I'd been doing, and was not really sure where to turn. And I had a friend, who is a journalist, who is based in Berlin, but she's American. And she had interacted with Tactical Tech in the past, and she forwarded this posting to me and it was a call for a residency, hosted by Tactical Tech that was for people who work as investigators or work in investigation in some way or another to sort of come together and try and create materials to train what we've come to describe as ‘citizen investigators’ – people who don't have formal investigative training – to sort of learn how to find and use information in ways that are like useful and safe and effective. For me, this was kind of a pretty radical experience that changed my understanding of myself and the work I was doing. Being exposed to a wide range of people working in investigation, really changed my understanding of the work I did and put it in a context that was much wider, and made me understand a lot better, the kinds of work that I could be doing. Plenty of investigative journalists, there were people working for NGOs and human rights organizations. There were coders and people who are technologists. And seeing my work within a broader context of other people who are information seekers gave me a lot more confidence and appreciation for the work that I was doing and the interests that I had. That was sort of when I started thinking of myself as an investigator. It gave me a confidence to call myself an investigator and to not really worry about where I was directly connected in terms of job or organization or affiliation. And it was like, ‘okay, well this is my vocation, however, I pursue it, we'll see over time’. Yeah, it sort of allowed me to see it less as a profession that someone can achieve, and more as a mindset or as a aspect of someone's character. And something that we wrote in that residency – I think maybe not everyone who reads it will take it super seriously, but I really do believe it – is that everyone is already an investigator. And when I talk about that with people in my personal life, they all sort of eventually see it. But when you first say it, people are sort of like, ‘what do you mean? You're an investigator, you're like, some kind of detective whatever, but like, I'm just a person’ and I'm like, ‘well, have you ever stalked someone on social media? Have you ever Googled someone that you went on a date with?’
Definitely for me as an individual, maybe not so much in my work yet, but having a network of other investigators around the world in different fields is really important to me, something that I think is hugely valuable and that I derive a lot of value and pleasure from. First of all, on a social level, it's really nice to know other people who think this way and who are engaged in this sort of work. But also it's really exciting to be able to say and know like, ‘hey, I have a friend who needs a Spanish-speaking financial investigator’, and then I know someone, or I know someone who knows someone. I think it’s a hugely valuable tool.
The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech.
Interview, production and sound design by Jo Barratt.
Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.
Music by Wael Eskandar.
Sound effects used have been dedicated to the public domain by their creators.
Illustration by Ann Kiernan
This podcast episode is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)
This content reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.