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The Distinction Between Intelligence and Investigation

Intelligence and investigation are crucial elements in the field of criminology. Despite appearing alike, there are fundamental differences between these two concepts in various aspects such as the purpose of the final product, temporal orientation, data gathering and analytical techniques, required skillset, nature of conclusions, and dissemination of information.

What Is Intelligence?

Intelligence refers to the process of collecting, collating, and analyzing data to generate information that will inform future actions. It often evaluates events, locations, or adversaries [Metscher & Gilbride, 2005].

Metscher & Gilbride 2005 Intelligence as investigative function
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Defining Investigation

Investigation, on the other hand, encompasses the gathering of information and evidence to identify, apprehend, and prosecute suspected offenders [Osteoburg & Ward, 2013].

Click here for reference material from Osteoburg & Ward.

It is worth noting that the State of California defines a private investigator in their Business and Professions Code, as most U.S. States do. They may vary slightly but this excerpt defines what a private investigator does (in California).

A private investigator is defined as a person agreeing to conduct investigation into the following:

(a) Crime or wrongs done or threatened against the United States of America or any state or territory of the United States of America.

(b) The identity, habits, conduct, business, occupation, honesty, integrity, credibility, knowledge, trustworthiness, efficiency, loyalty, activity, movement, whereabouts, affiliations, associations, transactions, acts, reputation, or character of any person.

(c) The location, disposition, or recovery of lost or stolen property.

(d) The cause or responsibility for fires, libels, losses, accidents, or damage or injury to persons or to property.

(e) Securing evidence to be used before any court, board, officer, or investigating committee.

Defining The Purpose

Purpose of the Final Product, such as Investigative reports, are often submitted for fact-finding in legal proceedings and have a direct link to prosecutors and in making other legal decisions. Intelligence reports, however, are provided to decision-makers to guide future activity, such as business investment and market entry, but lack a direct link to prosecution powers. Intelligence reports tend to be less focused and provide probabilities rather than definitive facts, and are generally not relied on to make prosecutory decisions.

Information Gathering and Analysis

Data Gathering and Analytical Techniques Investigations and intelligence use similar data gathering methods such as interviewing knowledgeable individuals, observing physical sites, and reviewing documents. However, certain data gathering methods are more commonly associated with one of the two activities. For example, investigations may involve securing abandoned property, such as trash, while intelligence may focus on patent reviews. The way data is analyzed distinguishes between investigations and strategic intelligence.

Investigative techniques aim to find the correct answer and employ a deductive process, often using elimination to determine the right answer. Data is presented as evidence to support the chosen answer.


Intelligence analysis, on the other hand, determines appropriate courses of action based on anticipated future events. It draws upon various general management consulting methods such as scenario analysis, SWOT analysis, competitive positioning assessment, and microeconomic evaluation. Since intelligence produces a range of answers, analysts must rely on lateral thinking to arrive at actionable initiatives.


The Skillsets

Skill Set Requirements Both intelligence and investigations require similar skills, but investigators tend to have experience in law enforcement, or private sector investigations that lead to uncovering fraud, deceit or matters of integrity. While intelligence practitioners are more likely to have a background in management consulting or corporate strategic planning. Investigators require good deductive and direct thinking, while intelligence practitioners require excellent analytical techniques.

How Are the Matters Concluded?

The end result in how a matter comes to an end usually means that investigations present facts as they are discovered, without making assumptions, and are based on the evidence collected. Intelligence, however, provides information based on its own conclusions, as future projections may not have direct evidence, and it is taken as insight for future decision making.

Public Vs. Private

Dissemination Investigative information is often open to public scrutiny and tested for credibility, while intelligence information is usually confidential and shared only with specific individuals, protected from public scrutiny.

3 Ways Intelligence and Investigations Are Different

Intelligence and investigation are related but distinct concepts. Here are three ways in which they differ:

  1. Nature and Scope:

  • Intelligence: Intelligence refers to the gathering, analysis, and interpretation of information to understand patterns, trends, and potential threats or opportunities. It often involves collecting data from various sources, including human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), and open-source intelligence (OSINT). Intelligence aims to provide decision-makers with insights to support strategic planning and decision-making.

  • Investigation: Investigation, on the other hand, is a specific process focused on uncovering facts and evidence related to a particular incident, crime, or issue. It involves gathering evidence, conducting interviews, analyzing data, and establishing a case to support legal or organizational actions. Investigations are typically narrower in scope and are aimed at answering specific questions or resolving particular issues.

  1. Purpose and Outcome:

  • Intelligence: The purpose of intelligence is to provide decision-makers with a broader understanding of complex situations, potential risks, and opportunities. Intelligence aims to inform policy-making, strategy development, and resource allocation. The outcome of intelligence analysis is often strategic insights and recommendations.

  • Investigation: Investigations are conducted with the goal of uncovering specific information related to a particular incident, crime, or problem. The outcome of an investigation is typically focused on establishing facts, identifying perpetrators, and supporting legal or disciplinary actions. The findings of an investigation may not always have broader strategic implications beyond the specific case.

  1. Timeframe and Focus:

  • Intelligence: Intelligence analysis often operates on a longer timeframe, focusing on trends, patterns, and developments over time. It may involve monitoring ongoing situations, tracking changes in behavior or capabilities, and forecasting potential future scenarios. Intelligence analysis tends to have a forward-looking perspective.

  • Investigation: Investigations are generally more immediate and focused on resolving specific issues or incidents in the present or recent past. They involve collecting and analyzing information relevant to a particular event or problem, with the primary goal of establishing facts and resolving the matter at hand. Investigations are typically retrospective in nature.

While intelligence and investigation share some common elements, such as information gathering and analysis, they serve different purposes, operate on different timeframes, and have distinct scopes and outcomes.


In conclusion, while investigations and intelligence are closely related, the differences between them are significant and should be taken into consideration when using them in the course of business or in defining a companies role in either.


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