Those engaged in the investigation business – whether sniffing out personal or corporate intelligence – are well aware of the need to comply with laws that protect personal information. But it's not always easy knowing what those laws are. A well-established forensic investigator with almost 40 years' experience of operating in China found himself not only arrested, but paraded on national television admitting he had illegally obtained Chinese citizens' personal information and expressing regret for what he had done. The case, reported in the Financial Times, illustrates China's recent tightening of its laws governing personal privacy.

What it may also illustrate is changing cultural values about personal information. Just as China previously neglected rights of personal information, so too did we. But even now that we do have extensive legal protection and a broad understanding that certain kinds of information gathering are wrong, there will still be disagreement about whether certain kinds of intelligence retrieval are culturally objectionable, particularly if there exists a good reason for accessing the information, e.g. to prevent possible fraud. The boundaries of information and privacy law are changing all the time. In many cases, investigators may be surprised to discover, as Peter Humphrey in China apparently did, that activities they think are acceptable are actually against the law. An example might be personal information freely provided by officials (but without proper authority) to a private investigator who passes the information to a corporate client engaged in an otherwise legitimate due diligence exercise. Such activity may seem legal, but it has the potential to be quite the opposite.