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The private security industry provides protection for a fee. Protection can include investigating theft, corporate bodyguarding, internal security and IT security against hackers and industrial espionage. While historians credit Britain's Sir Robert Peel with founding the first modern police force in the early 1800s, private security was around a lot earlier.
Crime was high in 1700s England, and both the government and private individuals offered rewards for catching crooks. Professional thief-takers made a career out of recovering stolen goods for a fee or capturing thieves for the reward. Many thief-takers were criminals themselves, extorting payment from thieves in return for not arresting them. Jonathan Wild, for instance, ran the London underworld in the 1720s. He secretly arranged many thefts and also arrested thieves who refused to work with him.
The Detective is Born
The classic figure of the private eye emerged in 1833 when French former criminal Eugene Vidocq founded a detective agency in Paris. Other detectives followed, investigating cases the police were unable or unwilling to handle. Detective agencies also provided armed security. The Pinkerton Agency in the United States, for instance, tracked down outlaws such as Jesse James and the Sundance Kid. The agency also broke strikes and spied on union organizers for business owners. Its eye logo inspired the term "private eye."
Twentieth Century Gumshoes
Private detectives in the 1800s worked mostly for the wealthy. The growth of the middle class in the 20th century made it possible for ordinary people to afford to hire PIs. As police took over railroad security and other jobs traditionally handled by investigators, gumshoes branched out into areas such as investigating alleged cases of infidelity, missing persons and insurance fraud. The profession grew big enough that state governments began licensing private detectives in the early 20th century.
Sounding the Alarm
The history of private security includes companies that sell technology rather than detective services. A landmark in security tech came in 1853, when Bostonian Augustus Pope patented the first electromagnetic alarm system. Pope's invention set up electrical circuit around doors and windows that triggered an alarm bell if they were opened. Edwin Holmes bought the rights to Pope's invention in 1857 and launched the first electric alarm business.
Computer security didn't exist before the first mainframes were built in the 20th century, and initially, security just meant guarding the physical computer or the magnetic tapes storing information. As the Internet developed, saboteurs, hackers and spies no longer needed physical access to computers to wreak havoc. In the 1990s, computer users faced the first phishing and denial-of-service attacks, but IT security developed as an industry. As hacking became a major criminal enterprise, the security industry grew with it.
- Bureau of Justice Statistics: The Private Security Industry
- Historic UK: Sir Robert Peel
- Old Bailey Proceedings Online: Policing in London
- Advanced Surveillance Group: History of Private Investigations
- California Department of Consumer Affairs: Bureau of Security and Investigative Affairs - A Brief History
- ABUS: The History of the Alarm System
- Cengage Learning: Introduction to Information Security
- SC Magazine: A Brief History of Internet Security
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.