Google cleared of privacy crime

In a victory for common sense, and as I predicted three months ago, the police have cleared Google of committing “privacy crime” during its recent WiFi snooping incident. Detective Senior Sergeant John van den Heuvel makes a good point when he says:

Anyone using Wi-Fi needs to ensure they have appropriate security measures in place. People should not underestimate the risk that information they broadcast might be accessed by others, either inadvertently or for more sinister purposes.

The police (who, by the way, are busy using Google as a crime-fighting tool) have “referred the matter back to the Privacy Commissioner”, who will probably issue a statement rapping Google over the knuckles (again), and sensibly that will be the end of it. Google has faced a barrage of criticism for its actions and is unlikely to attempt a similar exercise in this country any time soon. But there is nothing stopping other, less PR-concerned outfits from doing so – a clear precedent (in prosecutorial practice if not in law) has now been set. And this is likely to cause issues in the future.

As the Law Commission’s recent report highlighted, there are a number of gaps and grey areas in New Zealand’s privacy and “surveillance” laws. Sooner or later these issues will need to be dealt with, but we are not alone in this regard. New Zealand is probably better off adopting a “wait and see” approach and following a principled approach to privacy based on international (particularly EU and US) standards.

Meanwhile, though, other countries are keeping the pressure on Google with Spain recently launching its own criminal investigation into the WiFi incident.