Private detective directive defective?

New Zealand Security Magazine, October 2018

Private Detective
There is clearly a widely held opinion that Section 109 of the PSPPI Act is problematic.

A raft of complaints to the PSPLA has caused controversy among professional investigators, writes Nicholas Dynon. Use of the term ‘detective’ in breach of Section 109 of the Act is much ado about nothing according to some, for others it’s resulting in a skewed playing field.

The article “What’s in a name? Watching the ‘private’ detectives” in the August issue of NZSM reported that a raft of complaints had been submitted to the PSPLA in relation to twelve private investigation companies who – it had been alleged – were using the term ‘private detective’ to describe themselves online.

Under the Private Security Personnel and Private Investigators Act 2010, license and CoA holders are prohibited from using the term ‘detective’ to describe themselves.

Under Section 109 of the Act it is an offence for a licence or certificate of approval holder to “either orally or in writing describe or refer to himself or herself as a detective or by any other expression or term containing the word “detective”.

In the August article it was suggested that the complaints related to investigators who were being described as ‘private detective’ by Google’s search engine as the result of a Google search rather than as the result of any proactive labelling of themselves as such.

Information subsequently provided to NZSM indicates – on the contrary – that the complaints had established that the term ‘private detective’ had been actively placed in the meta-tags of some company websites, website pages, and in the Google AdWords advertisements of others.

NZSM understands that a number of the complaints resulted in the PSPLA identifying a breach of Section 109, and that those complaint respondents had taken action to remove offending material.

Where breaches had occurred, however, they were deemed not serious enough to warrant any further action by the Authority. Nevertheless, the affair has clearly ruffled PI feathers, with plenty of strong opinions being voiced both publicly and privately.

Indeed, it’s probably not too much of a metaphoric stretch to say that it has pushed a wedge through the country’s small community of professional investigators.

It’s an unfortunate situation. One injurious, no doubt, to the complainant and complained alike, and to the relationships between and among them that may never quite recover. One can only hope it ends up a storm in a teacup, but that seems unlikely.

Motivated primarily by the likelihood that the previous article has contributed to the controversy, it is the intention of this article to perhaps provide some perspective on this issue.

Firstly, it’s important to note that there are some very fuzzy lines here. ‘Detective’, after all, is a commonly used term. Even its Oxford dictionary definition – “a person, especially a police officer, whose occupation is to investigate and solve crimes” – supports the notion that it’s not just police who are detectives.

In common-use language, ‘detective’ is just as often used in relation to a private investigator as it is in relation to a detective police officer. As noted in the previous article, the international organisation for private investigators is the ‘World Association of Detectives’, and even the NZ Companies Office website uses the Industry Classification ‘Detective agency service’.

Section 109 is in the Act to ensure a clear distinction between sworn police officers conducting investigations on behalf of the Crown and private operators conducting investigations on behalf of a paying client. It’s about ensuring PIs are not purporting to be police. It makes sense, yet I think it unlikely that any of the complaint respondents were actually looking to convince people that they hold the powers of a sworn police officer.

Secondly, while the use of ‘private detective’ in Google advertisements, website pages and meta-tags was, we understand, found to constitute a deliberate act, one might question just how consciously deliberate it actually was.

NZSM understands that the complaint respondents invariably submitted that they had engaged a third-party web marketing or SEO provider to manage their online presence, and that the term ‘detective’ had been used by the third party without their knowledge. It is reasonable to accept that one might engage such a third party, that the third party would be unaware of Section 109, and that a respondent may not have reviewed this aspect of the third party’s work in fine detail.

But there is a flip-side to these caveats. And it’s a big flip-side.

At the heart of this controversy is the existence of Section 109. There is clearly a widely held opinion that Section 109 is problematic in that it contradicts the linguistic reality that ‘detective’ refers to both police detectives and private detectives.

It’s a valid opinion, and perhaps a legislative re-write is warranted. But until that happens, Section 109 is law. One is either following it or one is not – and those not following it stand to derive advantage over those that do.

In a small, crowded and ultra-competitive industry where every promotional advantage counts, those using the term ‘detective’ online – unwittingly or otherwise – turn up in more search results than those who make the conscious decision to abide by legislation and not use it. For the prospective customer who has keyed ‘detective’ in the search criteria, it is logical that those calling themselves detectives will more likely appear further up the search rankings.

This matters, considering where most people go to find a professional investigator. 20 years ago, they’d ‘let their fingers do the walking’ via the Yellow Pages. These days it’s search engines like Google that do the walking, and only the more diligent consumer will bother looking beyond the first few search results. One to two pages at best.

That’s why SEO and meta-tags and AdWords matter. And it’s why compliance with Section 109 matters.

In the course of drafting this article, I searched for [”private detective” nz] using Google. Sifting through the first few pages of results Icame across a number of New Zealand websites featuring plain text describing their investigators as ‘private detectives’.

I don’t purport to fully understand the intricacies of how search engines and SEO works, but it would appear to me that Google isn’t to blame for these.

At the same time, I doubt these people are trying to give anyone the false impression that they are sworn police detectives. But if they are ranked higher than others in search results because of it, then that’s an advantage to which they are not entitled.

Lastly, gesticulating over the motivations of either the complainant or the respondents is unlikely to prove helpful, and as professionals one must assume that each have acted without ill-intent and in good faith.