Fri, 27 Feb 2009

Above the law

In just one week in the UK.

Home Secretary ignores judge's decision, kidnaps bailed men and imprison them in Belmarsh

SIAC is meeting again today, and the whole situation threatens to turn into a colossal headache for the government. The men’s lawyers will argue that the government was in contempt of court, and it is expected that Mr. Justice Mitting, the chief judge, will not be happy to hear that the government behaved as though SIAC’s decisions were irrelevant, and, moreover, that the Home Secretary then acted in a manner that would have pleased King John, in those days before England’s nobles forced him to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, establishing for the first time that the king had no right to imprison his subjects “except upon the lawful judgment of his peers or the law of the land.”

Today, we seem to be experiencing a new version of the divine right of kings: the self-declared right of an elected government official to ignore her own judges, and to cast foreign “terror suspects” into the modern day version of the Tower of London — Belmarsh prison — with no regard for the laws established over the last 794 years.

Government assurances to Parliament about the UK collusions with the USA in the illegal practice of extraordinary rendition keep were false

Reprieve renditions investigator Clara Gutteridge said: “I’m afraid this is only the tip of the renditions iceberg.”

“For years now, the British government has been tossing us miserable scraps of information about its involvement in illegal renditions in Pakistan, Diego Garcia and now Afghanistan.

“Enough is enough. The British government must come clean and reveal exactly who has it captured, what has been done to them, and where they are now.”

Police disrupts Viva Palestina convoy and terrorise solidarity

The police attack on the Gaza convoy undermined participation in democratic politics, as George Galloway has rightly said. More generally, participation in international solidarity activity here is being persecuted in the name of preventing terrorism. Similar powers have also been used against Tamil, Kurdish and Baloch activists, among others. Indeed, this is a main reason why the state has ‘anti-terror’ powers, which are not needed to protect the public from violence.

Therefore such powers and their use should be opposed by everyone who supports democratic rights of free expression and association. Solidarity is needed for political and charitable activities which may be targeted in the future.

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Thu, 26 Feb 2009

A simple guide to the Freedom of Information and Data Protection Acts

Recently I have been asked several times how to go about obtaining a copy of one's personal information held by an organisation and how to access information held by a public authority. Often these two interests have been confused, they are distinct in their scopes and approaches. There's a wealth of information already spread across the web, possibly so much that it can be daunting to figure out where to start looking. In this short post I attempted to provide a basic primer to clarify the confusion and give you just enough information so you can start issuing your own data subject access and freedom of information requests whenever appropriate. As my experience has been mostly with police matters, this primer includes related tips and a list of FoI contact details for all police forces. For more information or more complex matters such as complaining see the links at the bottom.

How to obtain personal information which is held by an organisation?

This is covered by the Data Protection Act 1998. Under the DPA, individuals can request a copy of the information held about them by organisations, whether public or private, by sending what is called a data subject access request to the data controller of the organisation. There can be a cost of up to £10; in practice it's either free or £10. Organisations have 40 days to reply.

All organisations that hold personal information must register the details of their data controller and the types of information they record in a register of data controllers maintained by the Information Commissioner's Office. This register can be searched however the search engine functionality is limited and it can be difficult to find the details of an organisation you're looking for; it's often easier to check the website of the organisation you wish to contact for this information.

In your data subject access you will need to give enough information for the organisation to be able to identify you and the information they may have about you. Organisations are only allowed to send back identifying information about you. There are some exceptions, for national security for instance where the organisation does not have to send you the data it is holding about you. If you request a CCTV footage they have to blot out any other individual present and it is now more difficult to obtain CCTV footage under the Data Protection Act unless the footage is specifically about you.

You need to be aware that to comply with the DPA, organisation should not retain the information for longer than needed for the purpose for which it has been obtained so do not delay any data subject access otherwise the information you seek may have been deleted.

An example of the use of the Data Protection Act is to obtain a copy of the personal information held about you in the Police National Computer (aka your PNC record). Most Police forces have forms for this purpose and they list the documents needed to prove your identity. They all charge £10.

How to access to information which is held by a public authority?

This is covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Under the FoIA, individuals have the right to request recorded information held by a public authority. The public authority has to provide the information requested unless it has good reasons not to! For the authority to keep the information confidential it has to valid legal reasons to do so. Requests are free, however there's a limit on how long public authorities may spend trying to answer a request. A response must be provided within 20 working days. It is valid and not uncommon for authorities to write to mention it will take them a little longer than the 20 working days.

Note that the FoIA gives you right to access information only from public authority. It may not always be obvious what is a public authority and what is not. For instance, Police forces are public authorities, but the Association of Police Officers (ACPO) is not.

Before issuing an FoIA request it is worth checking the publication scheme of the concerned authority to see if the information you seek has not already been published. It's also worth checking if someone else has not already asked the same question, for instance using What Do They Know.

To initiate a request, you need to find the contact details of the FoIA team of the public authority. It is usually easy to find this on their website. Some authorities require you to send your request in a web form, but most accept email (note that some refuse cryptographically signed email). You must write a clear description of the information you are after and provide a contact detail. It is worth ensuring the description is precise and clear as this is the only information the public authority will have to figure out what it is you want. You have to provide your real name and either an email address or a physical address; some authorities insist for a physical address but this is not a requirement.

Two common reasons for refusal are that the data you seek is not held by this public authority and that it would take too long to find the answer (often because the source data would require manual searching). If you get a refusal, but believe that the authority should really be able to provide the information, a good initial follow up is to point out that under Section 16 of the Act, the authority has a duty "to provide advice and assistance". You can also offer to narrow your initial request to ensure that the search fits in the allotted time available.

In the case of police forces, the maximum time/cost they are allowed to spend on a FoIA request is 18 hours, sometimes expressed as £450 (i.e., a rate of £25 per hour). Some forces consider just dealing with the admin of the response takes up to three hours of this total.

Further information:

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Sat, 21 Feb 2009

Snap a copper and get ten years in the slammer - (mis)interpretations

This post is a follow-up to the earlier post Poor at mind reading? Snap a copper and get ten years in the slammer about Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. The pictures are from the event 'I’m a Photographer … not a Terrorist' at New Scotland Yard.

I’m a Photographer … not a Terrorist event (4)

Here are two positions we did not include in the earlier post. Firstly, a Government response:

The new offence of eliciting, publishing or communicating information about the armed forces, security and intelligence agencies or the police contained in section 76 of the Act is designed to combat the activities of those whose conduct might assist terrorists. We judge that members of the police and UK intelligence services are regarded as potential targets by Islamist extremists in the UK. We accept that this is a wide-ranging offence, but to mitigate this we have put in place robust safeguards. First, it is a defence to for the defendant to prove that he had a reasonable excuse for his action or possession. This burden on the defence to show a reasonable excuse is an evidential burden only (not a full reverse burden of proof). This means that the defence need only raise an issue with the evidence and it will then be for the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the offence was committed. Second, in keeping with other serious terrorism offences, section 117 of the 2000 Act applies. This provision requires the Director of Public Prosecutions to consent to any prosecutions of this kind, thus providing a safeguard against any alleged spurious prosecutions. Perhaps most importantly, we believe that the principles set out in R v K, which considered section 58 of the 2000 Act, would apply to this offence. Here the court considered that the possession or act must raise a reasonable suspicion that it was intended to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. We therefore consider that the offence contained sufficient safeguards to protect the suspect.

And secondly, the request Do not make us the 'secret' police of the Metropolitan Police Federation:

I’m a Photographer … not a Terrorist event (2)[Section 76] is open to wide interpretation or, rather, misinterpretation. How, for example, will it be expected to apply in practice to the 2012 Olympics, which will be both a photo-event par excellence and subject to an intense security operation?

Does the law mean tourists are going to be rounded up and arrested en masse for taking suspicious photos of iconic scenes around the capital? That will work wonders for the international reputation of the London Bobby and for the city as a whole as a welcoming destination.

If there is a terrorist attack in the capital, will the media concentrate their efforts on fire and ambulance crews and prudently avoid broadcasting or publishing pictures of police officers, rendering them invisible to the public?

Police and photographers share the streets and the Met Federation earnestly wants to see them doing so harmoniously. Good relationships between the police and media benefit everyone, including the public, which both sides exist to serve.

As things stand, there is a real risk of photographers being hampered in carrying out their legitimate work and of police officers facing opprobrium for carrying out what they genuinely, if mistakenly, believe are duties imposed on them by the law.

This is unfair on everyone and completely avoidable - hence, the Met Fed's call for joint action to produce a mutually-agreed code.

We do not want to become the ‘secret’ police.

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Fri, 20 Feb 2009

Unintended consequences of legislation on our basic rights and freedoms

The Abolition of Freedom Act Report 2009 marks the beginnings of a research project that seeks to track the unintended consequences of legislation on our fundamental rights and freedoms in the UK since the Human Rights Act 1998. This report has been compiled by the UCL Student Human Rights Programme (UCLHRP) on its shiny new website. The students work on several other projects about human rights issues; it's worth checking out the rest of the site.

This UCLHRP report is published alongside several briefings by the Convention on Modern Liberty on its research page:

We have a small team of researchers at work chronicling some of the most striking examples of the abuses the Convention aims to help stop. We will be using this page to publish the result research documents. You can download PDF versions of those we have already published using the links below:

#1: Innocence is no protection against the government's laws

#2: Whose life is it anyway?

#3: Has Britain become obsessed with petty minded control?

#4: Labour’s liberal rebels

#5: The personal questions the government wants us to answer

See also a detailed report compiled for us by the UCL Student Human Rights Programme, listing all the liberties we’ve lost in the past decade:

The Abolition of Freedom Act 2009

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Wed, 18 Feb 2009

GMP recruiting counter-terrorism informers - in hair salons

While the Met has been running annual ad campaigns for the past two years calling all Londoners to denounce anyone looking or behaving a bit different, the Greater Manchester Police is planning a campaign targeted at hair salons. The Manchester Evening News reports:

HAIR salons could soon be in the frontline in the war on terror. Police research shows women are less likely to take on board security messages.

Now experts have pinpointed hair salons as the perfect place to target them.

They plan to show videos while women are having their hair done to encourage them to report suspicious behaviour on a special hotline.

Greater Manchester Police has been chosen to co-ordinate a national publicity campaign which will also feature national TV and radio adverts, posters and videos in railways stations, on buses and next to major city roads.

Ads broadcast in hairdressers' salons calling for denunciation have little chance of detecting a terrorist, but will help fuel a climate of mistrust that promotes discriminatory and racist attitudes.

There are fears the threat of terrorism has drifted off the agenda with the onset of the global recession.

This is a poor security trade-off.

(hat tip to (Barber) Shop out your neighbours to the police, Mancunian terror propaganda plan makes us less safe and Thank god for Boris (or, why I'll never get my hair done in Manchester))

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Tue, 17 Feb 2009

Seven years of counter-terrorism policies - enough

A panel composed of eight judges and lawyers took three years, conducting 16 hearings in 40 countries, to complete a 213-page report about the impact of counter-terrorism policies worldwide. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) organised an event, chaired by Baroness Helen Kennedy QC, for the London launch of its report Assessing Damage, Urging Action.

Panel chair Justice Arthur Chaskalson (South Africa) reminded the audience that terrorism is a real threat that should not be underestimated. Governments have a duty to take action, based in law. Justice Chaskalson is concerned the picture the panel developed while working on this report is worse than what they expected. There has been a paradigm shift from the second half of last century to the last seven years; from the development of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights to greater control, greater surveillance and less rights.

Hina Jilani (Pakistan) and Mary Robinson (Ireland) both reiterated how much they were taken aback by the amount of damage that has been done by counter-terrorism policies worldwide, by the cumulative impact, how much damage has been done. Talking about intelligence services and calling for effective monitoring and accountability, Ms Jilani pointed out collusion between as a key issue. Not just collusion in lawlessness, but also collusion in covering up. Another key issue is the secrecy that seeps into the system leading to detention incommunicado, practices leading to torture, etc. Ms Robinson concluded that it's time to take stock and act to repeal abusive laws and policies (see below for key recommendations).

After Eric Metcalfe, from Justice, went through Key issues in the UK counter-terrorism policy since 9/11, Roger Smith, Justice's director, suggested we need to go through a process of recognising what we have done and then disown it. One law that could follow this process is the Identity Cards Act!

To a question from Liberty about whether the panel would agree to recommend MPs to abandon control orders when they will be reviewed soon, Both Justice Chaskalson and Hina Jilani said that personally they dislike control orders. A reason for this dislike is that they are not sure what they achieve. Common outcomes for those subject to control orders are to either abscond or to end up being criminalised for breach of the conditions of the control order. Mary Robinson was also concerned by the extent of the conditions such as the up to 16 hours staying at home every day (for control orders that do not derogate from the European Convention of Human Rights).

To a question by this reporter about the many definitions of terrorism, Justice Chaskalson pointed out that creating a new definition was out of the scope set by the ICJ. However a definition of terrorism that has wide international agreement is that of 'criminal acts committed with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury [(i.e., excluding damage to property)] with the purpose of provoking terror in order to compel governments or international organisations to do or abstain doing any act'. The focus in on the act rather than on the actor, i.e. anyone performing an act of terrorism is a terrorist - be it an individual, an organisation or a state.

UPDATE: There's a very good interview of Mary Robinson with Riz Khan on Al Jazeera (you can also get the video or just the audio on iTunes)

Key recommendations [from the report]

Each chapter of this report sets out the Panel's detailed recommendations and provides a fuller argumentation for each proposal. The following is a summary of the key recommendations:

1. stocktaking and repairing the damage

There is a need to take stock, take remedial action, and make a fresh start. Measures need to be taken at the international, regional and national levels:

a. Internationally: All UN bodies, including the Security Council, should take a leadership role in restoring respect for human rights in the counter-terrorism efforts of its agencies and member States. In particular, the Human Rights Council should develop a detailed plan of action and ensure a systematic follow-up to the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

b. Regionally: Relevant organisations should conduct a comprehensive review of regional agreements and measures on counter-terrorism, and review, where necessary, the mechanisms to ensure compliance with human rights standards, including mechanisms for monitoring implementation by member States.

c. Nationally: States should undertake comprehensive reviews of their counter-terrorism laws, policies and practices, including in particular the extent to which they ensure effective accountability, and their impact on civil society and minority communities. States should adopt such changes as are necessary to ensure that they are fully consistent with the rule of law and the respect for human rights, and to avoid all over-broad definitions which might facilitate misuse.

2. Preventing the normalisation of the exceptional

States should take explicit precautions to ensure that any measures, intended to be exceptional, do not become a normal part of the legislative framework. Precautions could include ensuring that any new counter-terrorist laws or measures:

• fill a demonstrable gap in existing laws;

• comply with all the requirements of international human rights law, and where relevant, international humanitarian law;

• are subject to clear time-limits;

• are subject to periodic independent review, not solely as to implementation, but also as to the continuing necessity and proportionality of the measure;

• and that the review process monitor that any formal derogations entered by the State are only in place for as long as terrorism poses a genuine threat to the life of the nation, and are in compliance with all substantive and procedural requirements of relevant instruments.

3. Equality and non-discrimination

States must ensure that counter-terrorist measures are non-discriminatory, and that due respect be paid to the rights of those, such as juveniles, women and minority communities, who may experience terrorism and counter-terrorism measures differentially. A particular effort must be made to ensure that people are not treated as terrorist suspects on the sole basis of their ethnicity, religion, or similar identity.

4. accountability in counter-terrorism measures

States should ensure that where human rights violations have been alleged, effective inquiries, with proper disclosure, should be established. Accountability should be strengthened on all levels and, in particular, provisions for immunity, indemnity clauses, and limitations on access to courts should be removed. Effective remedies and accountability depend to a large extent on a strong, independent and knowledgeable judiciary and legal profession: efforts should be made to strengthen the criminal justice system, including the provision of technical assistance where needed.

5. Repudiating the war paradigm

The incoming US administration should reaffirm the US's historic commitment to fully uphold and faithfully apply the laws of war during situations of armed conflict and recognise that human rights law does not cease to apply in such situations. Accordingly, it should seek the repeal of any law and repudiate any policies or practices associated with the “war on terror” paradigm which are inconsistent with international humanitarian and human rights law. In particular, it should renounce the use of torture and other proscribed interrogation techniques, extraordinary renditions, and secret and prolonged detention without charge or trial.

It should also conduct a transparent and comprehensive investigation into serious human rights and/or humanitarian law violations committed in the course of the “war on terror” and should take active steps to provide effective remedies to the victims of such abuses. The military detention centre at Guantánamo Bay should be closed in a human rights compliant manner and persons held there should be released or charged and tried in accordance with applicable international law standards.

Other countries that have been complicit in human rights violations arising from the war paradigm should similarly repudiate that behaviour and review legislation, policies and practices to prevent any such repetition in future.

6. Human rights compliant intelligence efforts

States should take steps to ensure that the work of intelligence agencies is fully compliant with human rights law. The powers of intelligence and law enforcement should be separated and intelligence agencies should not in principle have the power to arrest, detain and interrogate; if intelligence agencies are assigned such powers, the powers should be exercised in conformity with human rights standards.

Care should be taken to regulate by law the powers of intelligence agencies, the gathering of intelligence and the sharing of intelligence with other agencies. It is also imperative to establish independent oversight mechanisms. There should be precise rules on the protection of privacy and measures such as surveillance and interception of communications should require judicial authorisation.

States should provide effective remedies and reparation for human rights violations (including those carried out by their intelligence services) and conduct thorough and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations, such as renditions and secret detentions or ill-treatment. The need to maintain secrecy of intelligence services' activities must not deprive victims access to an effective remedy and reparation.

7. The prevention of terrorism

Measures to prevent terrorism, especially when based on secret intelligence, must be mindful of the fundamental rights of the individuals concerned. Administrative detention, control orders, the freezing of assets and other actions on the basis of terrorist lists, must in the first place be necessary and proportionate, limited in time, non-discriminatory and subject to independent periodic review. Furthermore, those affected must have an effective and speedy opportunity to challenge the allegation before a judicial body.

States should repeal laws authorising administrative detention without charge or trial outside a genuine state of emergency; even in the latter case, States are reminded that the right to habeas corpus must be granted to all detainees and in all circumstances.

States should ensure that immigration law does not serve as a substitute for criminal law in its counter-terrorism efforts and should, in particular, reaffirm their commitment to the principle of non-refoulement. They should not rely on diplomatic assurances or other forms of non-binding agreements to transfer individuals when there is a real risk of serious human rights violations.

The UN Security Council, the Council of the European Union and other organisations using a listing system should urgently comply with basic standards of fairness and due process, including, as a minimum, allowing affected persons and organisations the right to know the grounds of listing and the right to challenge such listing in an adversarial hearing before a competent, independent and impartial body.

8. Reasserting the value of the criminal justice system

States should ensure that their criminal justice law, and the various agencies of the criminal justice system, are ‘fit for purpose’ so that they can meet the long-term challenges posed by terrorism. Priority should be given to efforts to strengthen the capacity of ordinary law enforcement and judicial systems to enforce their existing criminal law and to improve international judicial cooperation. The international community should support such efforts, including by providing technical assistance where needed to strengthen States' ability to investigate complex crimes within a framework of the rule of law.

9. Repudiation of serious human rights violations

The international community should repudiate the serious human rights and humanitarian law violations that have been committed worldwide by many States in the name of countering terrorism. Given the ambiguity that has arisen around previously uncontested truths, it is vital to reiterate that all forms of torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, extra-ordinary renditions, and secret detention are illegal and unacceptable.

First published on 2009-02-17; Last updated on 2009-02-19.

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Fri, 13 Feb 2009

No prosecution for any offence arising either out of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes or for evidence given at the inquest

Following, last December decision of an open verdict at the Jean-Charles de Menezes inquest, the Crown Prosecution Service has found insufficient evidence to prosecute any individual police officer.

Stephen O’Doherty, reviewing lawyer, CPS Special Crime Division, said: (a more detailed letter from Stephen O’Doherty has been posted by the Justice 4 Jean Campaign):

[...] I have now concluded that there is insufficient evidence that any offence was committed by any individual officers in relation to the tragic death of Mr de Menezes.

In reaching this decision, I considered the whether the officers known as C2 and C12 acted in self defence in shooting Mr de Menezes and also whether they lied to the inquest about what was said and done immediately before the shooting. [...]

Vivian Figuierdo's reaction (as part of a Justice 4 Jean Campaign press release):

Today's decision is deeply upsetting to my family. The CPS have not met with us or our lawyers about this, we have been totally shut out of the process again. We are all in shock and simply cannot understand how the deliberate killing of an innocent man and an attempt by the Metropolitan police to cover it up does not result in a criminal offence. We condemn the CPS decision and reject the logic of their argument.

The inquest put the truth out there for all the public to see, but the authorities want us to forget the truth to stop us getting justice. But we will never forget.

After almost four years of tireless campaigning by my family and a struggle which has disrupted all of our lives in unimaginable ways, it is clear to us that the state will continue to block any of our attempts to achieve justice through the legal system. We have therefore decided not to continue with our legal challenges. We now turn our efforts to parliament. Justice for Jean will be done one day and we are determined to follow any route to get it"

The last time a Police officer was convicted following a death in custody was for assault charges in 1971 for a death that occurred in 1969.

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Poor at mind reading? Snap a copper and get ten years in the slammer

Come Monday, before taking a photograph of a police officer, you'll have to mind read whether he or she will suspect the information could be useful to a terrorist. If your mind reading technique is not good, then you could be arrested and end up in the slammer for up to ten years.

Photographers - whether amateurs or professionals - are all too commonly stopped and searched on suspicion of conducting hostile reconnaissance. According to Superintendent David Hartshorn, of the Metropolitan Police Public Order Branch, there have been many arrests of photographers but no conviction yet. Since the end of last year, the police have insisted that 'the Terrorism Act 2000 does not prohibit people from taking photographs or digital images', but from next week the police recommends that 'it is advisable that photographers are careful when taking photographs of police officers'.

What changes is that the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 (Commencement No. 2) Order 2009 brings into force section 76 'offences relating to information about members of armed forces etc', together with Schedule 8 'offences relating to information about members of armed forces etc: supplementary provisions' of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. Here's the main part of section 76:

(1) A person commits an offence who— (a) elicits or attempts to elicit information about an individual who is or has been— (i) a member of Her Majesty's forces, (ii) a member of any of the intelligence services, or (iii) a constable, which is of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or (b) publishes or communicates any such information.

(2) It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that they had a reasonable excuse for their action.

The main concerns of photographers, until now, have been with Section 44 stop and searchers. This prompted the National Police Improvement Agency to specifically address this point in the latest revision of its Practice advice on stop and search in relation to terrorism:


The Terrorism Act 2000 does not prohibit people from taking photographs or digital images in an area where an authority under section 44 is in place. Officers should not prevent people taking photographs unless they are in an area where photography is prevented by other legislation.

If officers reasonably suspect that photographs are being taken as part of hostile terrorist reconnaissance, a search under section 43 of the Terrorism Act 2000 or an arrest should be considered. Film and memory cards may be seized as part of the search, but officers do not have a legal power to delete images or destroy film. Although images may be viewed as part of a search, to preserve evidence when cameras or other devices are seized, officers should not normally attempt to examine them. Cameras and other devices should be left in the state they were found and forwarded to appropriately trained staff for forensic examination. The person being searched should never be asked or allowed to turn the device on or off because of the danger of evidence being lost or damaged.

The Counter Terrorism Act 2008 section 76 extends further the already dangerous section 58 (collection of information) of the Terrorism Act 2000. If you're not familiar with this section, its impact is made only too clear in this article excerpt by lawyer Gareth Peirce:

Defendant after defendant has discovered that a long-forgotten internet search has left an indelible record sufficient for a conviction under the profoundly disturbing section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which allows prosecution for simple possession of an item likely to be useful to terrorists, and carries a sentence of up to 10 years' imprisonment. While the record of use remains permanently, no equivalent reconstruction is available or even required of the mindset of the user at the time. The common elements in each conviction have now become familiar: the defendant had not the slightest idea that such possession was inconsistent with the right to freedom of thought; was not remotely involved in any terrorist activity; and was Muslim.

Freedom not fear demonstration at New Scotland YardNow that you have some understanding of how section 58 of the TA 2000 has been (mis)used, how do you think the police will want to use the new powers brought in by section 76? No need to guess. Just check your photo collection and see if you have any picture that has a police officer in it, or even a former officer. Or check whether you've published a friend's picture on your blog or website that include an police officer in the frame. Imagine yourself, or whoever took the pic, about to take the same picture next week. Now read the helpful relevant FAQ on the Police National Legal Database:

Question Q717

I want to take some photos in public, is it now illegal?


It is not illegal to take photographs or video footage in public places unless it is for criminal or terrorist purposes.

There will be places where you have access as a member of the public, but will have to ask permission or may be prevented altogether. These could include stately homes, museums, churches shopping malls, railway stations and council/government buildings. You need to check the situation out on a case by case basis.

The country is in a heightened state of alert (and will be for many years) because of potential terrorist attacks. So called 'soft targets' are particularly vulnerable. Security staff, the general public and police are much more aware of anyone taking photographs and you may be approached by someone, such as the police, when you are taking photographs near or in potential targets. Generally the police cannot seize the camera or memory card unless you are committing an offence or suspected of terrorist activity.

The taking of photographs of an individual without their consent is a civil matter. Taking a photo of a person where they can reasonably expect privacy could be a breach of privacy laws. The other issue to consider is what you plan to do with the photograph afterwards. If you intend to publish it in any way (on the internet, in a book or at a gallery) then you would need the person's permission.

From Monday 16th February 2009 there is a new offence concerning eliciting information about members of armed forces, police officers and intelligence services which is likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, or publishes or communicates information of that kind. does not state that the person who gets the information has to use the information for terrorism purposes, just that the information is likely to be useful to a terrorist.

There is a defence of reasonable excuse under this section and it would be for the suspect/defendant to raise this matter.

It is advisable that photographers are careful when taking photographs of police officers, the intelligence services or members of the armed forces. If an officer suspects that the information gained by the person could be useful to a terrorist, then the photographer could find themselves arrested for this offence and the camera seized, albeit may only be until the facts are clarified. [emphasis added]

Any photographer may end up on the wrong end of this law. An area likely to be strongly impacted is documenting dissent or any behaviour the police is not keen to be witnessed and reported. And this law is not limited to photographers.

A media event 'I’m a Photographer … not a Terrorist' is being organised this Monday 16 February 2009 at 11am outside New Scotland Yard by the National Union of Journalists, the British Journal of Photography, the British Press Photographers’ Association, Mark Thomas, Chris Atkins, Marc Vallée and others: 'The plan is simple, turn up with your camera and exercise your democratic right to take a photograph in a public place.'

UPDATE Follow-up post: Snap a copper and get ten years in the slammer - (mis)interpretations

First published on 2009-02-14; last updated on 2009-02-22.

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Wed, 11 Feb 2009

Risk assessment

Security is a trade-off. Five areas where perception of the security trade-off can diverge from reality, as listed by Bruce Schneier in his 2008 Psychology of Security essay:

  1. The severity of the risk.
  2. The probability of the risk.
  3. The magnitude of the costs.
  4. How effective the countermeasure is at mitigating the risk.
  5. The trade-off itself.

Nigel Inkster, SIS (a.k.a. MI6) officer from 1975 to 2006 and Assistant Chief and Director of Operations and Intelligence from 2004 to 2006, speaking today at a counterterrorism conference:

Asked what dangers were more serious than terrorism, Mr Inkster suggested that British government planners were more concerned regarding the possible results of global pandemics, or perhaps the worst-case outcomes of climate change.

"We need to keep terrorism in some kind of context," he said. "For example, every year in the UK, more people die in road accidents than have been killed by terrorists in all of recorded history."

Danny Chivers' Risk assessment poem in this month New Internationalist (audio version):

I used to like bees
I'd watch them bumbling through the leaves
And hum along with their good vibrations
Until I learned that they killed more people last year than THE TERRORISTS did.
Now I write letters to the Daily Mail
Demanding strict border controls on the entrances to hives
And random police raids on patches of lavender.

Which makes about as much sense
As our attempts
At a notional national defence
Against a terrorist threat
About as dangerous as stepping outside in the wet
(Pneumonia is Britain's fifth biggest killer)

I almost feel a kind of pride
In our innocence and trust as we're all taken for a ride
On the paranoia bus with the
Bullet-proof windows firmly closed and every steel door secure
Glancing at the dark-skinned people outside.

Mount Snowden kills as many people as terrorism
So let's drag it down to Belmarsh
Hold it without trial for 42 days
Til it confesses to conspiring to undermine our British way
Of life.
Whatever that is.

More people are killed by taking the wrong pills than by terrorist attacks
Which means the money that's planned for ID cards, armed guards, putting people behind bars without charge
Would save more lives if spent instead on
Better-labelled jars.

You're more likely to be killed by a rare disease
Or win the national lottery
You're more likely to be killed by a hernia
You're more likely to be killed by your furniture

You're more likely to be done over by your lover
To meet your end at the hands of a friend
You're more likely to commit suicide yourself
Than be killed by the suicide of somebody else.

And stress kills thousands every year
So – an ironic twist –
You're more likely to be killed by the fear of terrorism
Than by a terrorist.

So how to explain this?
Our government's obsessed
An endless war against a risk
Not properly assessed

For which they need broader state powers to watch you at all hours, CCTV, ID – they don't mean to intrude, but could you include an ample selection of bodily samples? – longer detention, not to mention the need to obtain evidence mysteriously from overseas but let them explain: it doesn't count as torture if somebody elsewhere is doing it for ya, same as having your phone tapped by some information vandal isn't really a scandal because civil liberties must be balanced against the need for greater security, surely you don't really need that jury, with so many new offences in store there's bound to be one or more made just for you, even if you only meant to create peaceful dissent against society's ills, you'll still find yourself on the line out front in a new witch hunt during open season…

But it's definitely all about terror and you'd be making a grave error bordering on treason to suggest that they might want these powers for any other reason.


I won't be gagged, or tagged and numbered
Won't have my genes and eyeballs plundered
At my own expense for a defence that won't work against a threat that couldn't get much smaller,
They won't get my photograph, my details, my age
(So long as they don't log onto my Facebook page)
And when they show up for me
I won't go quietly
I'll tell them to go out and fight the real enemy
Because sex kills more people than terrorism
And so does pregnancy
So let's drop the terror cops
And swap
The thought police for the sex police.

I bet they'll have much better uniforms.

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Fri, 06 Feb 2009

Authoritative sources, independent sources and fact checking

An individual wanted to learn details of the Chiefs of Defence Staff. He went to the authoritative source and sent a freedom of information request to the MOD. This week, the MOD responded by suggesting that Wikipedia is the most authoritative source of information on its staff - the mind boggles:

- there is an accurate list of the information you requested on Wikipedia at the following link:

This week saw the announcement of FactCheck UK:

Monday 9th February is the launch date for FactCheck UK, a new blogger-driven project that aims to pull together some of the best talent from the British blogosphere and subject the veracity of Britain's politicians and mainstream media to some much needed independent scrutiny.

This is a welcome initiative if it manages to have enough good quality coverage. It is all too common for news media to misunderstand the data they base their articles on. As sources are often not made explicit it can be difficult to check the accuracy of the information when it's unclear or you suspect something may be wrong. I've shown some of these issues in one of my articles about National DNA Database statistics. Often the main issue is finding authoritative sources.

FactCheck UK would benefit from extending its scope to scrutinise blogs with a news and/or political agenda as well; and possibly welcoming non bloggers as contributors too. In the echo chamber of the blogosphere a story originating in one blog is repeated in others and then considered true as it has multiple sources. Few journalists have the time to ensure that at least two sources for the same story are independent... and a meme is created.

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Thu, 05 Feb 2009

Hostile reconnaissance - no conviction yet but trials coming

At a debate organised by London Calling Photographers, Superintendent David Hartshorn, of the Metropolitan Police Public Order Branch was quick to point out that stops and searches of photographers suspected of conducting hostile reconnaissance have led to many arrests. When I queried whether they had led to any convictions, he said that there had be no conviction, but that there were some cases going to trial that are sub judice.

Taking pictures, filming or even just drawing sketches of buildings is often construed as hostile reconnaissance and risks you being stopped and searched, or even arrested. (Even my innocent doodles were construed by the Police as being a hostile reconnaissance of a tube station.) In its counter terrorism ad campaigns, the Met states that terrorists take photographs and Met officers, as those of other forces, are commonly targeting photographers with tactics such as stops and searches. One hostile reconnaissance case that went to trial was that of an Iraqi who was charged in 2006 for filming Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, he eventually was found not guilty.

If you are stopped and searched (by the Met) and are unhappy about how the encounter progresses, do write down the names or numbers of the officers involved. The Met is now a bigger employer than the Navy and in case of a complaint, without detailed information it will not spend time to find the officers involved for anything less than a serious matter. Superintendent Hartshorn recommended that when complaining you should be proactive and suggest the outcome you would want to happen if you had a magic wand. Some examples of cases where the Met did make a change as a result of a suggestion included in a complaint would have been more persuasive. Jeff Moore, Chairman of the British Press Photographers' Association, recommended local resolution as the preferred route to solve any dispute. I disagree and suggest that local resolution should be the exception for when the matter is trivial - and in this case you should consider whether it is reasonable to complain. If you do have matter to complain then an investigation will be much more exhaustive and give more options. (You may also want to check out the Independent Police Complaints Commission Making a complaint to the IPCC page.) If you have issues with policies and not individual officers, then don't complain but go ask a question at the Metropolitan Police Authority.

Superintendent Hartshorn reminded the audience of the amount of work his team is handling. In the last rolling twelve months, the Met deployed a quarter million officers to manage 5,600 events - from small ones, such a ministerial visit, to big ones, such as a large anti war demonstration. Apparently, the way these events are handled makes the the Met police a world leader in the policing of public order. The next two years of public order policing will be interesting; highlights include the G20 Summit: Xmas coming early for activists, and industrial disputes in reaction to the downturn in the economy.

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