Norway, After the Event

I grew up in Norway until I was about 7, and so it’s hardly surprising that I’ve been thinking a lot about the country and its people following the recent attacks. I’ve spent some time over the last few days reading the manifesto of the self-confessed killer, but I’m not going to spend any time going over that farago of confused reactionary stupidity here.

What I am primarily interested in is how the country reacts, especially as we are now coming up to ten years after the 9/11 attacks -and the world is still living in the aftermath not only of the attacks themselves but of the reaction of the US and its subordinates. Surveillance Studies, along with many other research fields has documented and analyzed the turn to righter security and increased surveillance, and the corresponding weakening of longstanding individual liberties and collective rights.

But, if Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, has anything to do with it, Norway will not be going down the same destructive, counter-productive and vengeful path. Even though he himself and many people he knew were the targets of the attack, he has been emphasizing since that Norway should not compromise its openness and democratic values, on the contrary they should strengthen their commitment to those ideals.The New York Times today quotes him as saying:

“It’s absolutely possible to have an open, democratic, inclusive society, and at the same time have security measures and not be naive. […] I think what we have seen is that there is going to be one Norway before and one Norway after July 22 […] But I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before.”

Let’s hope so. My thoughts remain with the families and friends of the victims, and all the people of Norway. I’ll write more about the wider European reaction tomorrow or over the weekend.

Further details on the new UK government’s Civil Liberties agenda

The UK full coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat parties has just been published. It includes a section on civil liberties which is much more than we could have hoped for and which makes no mention of rolling back the Human Rights Act or the more ludicrous fringe Conservative demands… In full it is as follows:

“The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government and roll back state intrusion.

This will include:

• A freedom or great repeal bill;

• The scrapping of the ID card scheme, the national identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point database;

• Outlawing the fingerprinting of children at school without parental permission;

• The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency;

• Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database;

• The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury;

• The restoration of rights to non-violent protest;

• The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech;

• Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation;

• Further regulation of CCTV;

• Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason;

• A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.”

All of these points are excellent. They lack detail of course, and the devil is always in the detail, and I would have liked to have seen a little more on what would be included in the ‘great repeal’ given that later it only talks about ‘safeguards’ against the abuse of anti-terrorism laws, but really this is as good as anyone could have hoped for, even, though they may not admit it, many of the more socially-liberal Labour Party supporters. The reform of libel laws and commitment to transparency is equally as welcome as the rolling back or regulation of surveillance, and this seems to extend into other parts of the agreement for the reform of government and elections. I hope the eventual full programme will also include some rationalisation of the crazy landscape of multiple ‘commissions’ to regulate different aspects of state-citizen information relations, in favour of an expanded and more powerful Information Commissioner’s Office, but we will see. However, this is a great start (and I never, ever, thought I would be saying that about a Conservative government…).

The end of the war on photographers?

The UK Home Office has finally issued a circular on Photography and Counter-Terrorism (012/2009) in response to the widespread complaints about police harassment of both professional and amateur photographers in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’ – which I covered here and here. The circular advises police of can and cannot be done under three separate parts of the Terrorism Act 2000: Sections 43 on searches, 44 on authorised area searches and 58A on eliciting and publishing information on members of the police, armed forces or intelligence services, which was introduced as part of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. This is of course to be welcomed, even if it is rather late in the day.

On Section 43, they make is clear that the Act “does not prohibit the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place and members of the public and the press should not be prevented from doing so in exercise of the powers conferred by section” and that it is the suspicion of being a terrorist that gives the justification for any search, not the fact of taking photographs.

On Section 44, they remind the police that neither the Press nor public can be prevented from taking pictures in an area defined as an ‘authorised area’ by the police, and that officers have no powers to delete pictures or seize film. And finally, on Section 58a, they remind officers that ‘reasonable excuses’ for taking pictures, even of subjects considered sensitive, include tourism, sight-seeing and journalism. Interestingly, however, they do not actually give academic research as an example of reasonable excuse!

Of course, all of this serves to remind us that the Terrorism Act was drawn way too vaguely and widely and gave too much discretion to individual police forces and officers in its interpretation. Earlier this year, Jack Straw promised at several meetings that the government was to review all of the legislation on terrorism and counter-terrorism – perhaps this guidance is a result but it is only about interpretation and does not make or propose any change to the law itself.

Met Police finally admit photography is not a crime

After protest and parliamentary questions, The Register reports this week that the London Metropolitan Police have finally got round to reminding their officers that it is not in fact a criminal offence for ordinary people to take photographs or video in public places, nor even to take pictures of police officers. The way that many Met officers had been acting over the past couple of years with harassment of photographers, even tourists in some cases, and arrests under the Terrorism Act,  there appeared to be a deliberate attempt to change or extend the meaning of the law by police policy. This was at the same time that the Met had been running campaigns stating that it was suspicious for anyone to be interested in CCTV. Part of this is also the fault of the Act (and others like it, including the recent Counter-Terrorism Act), which are very broadly drawn and easily subject to extreme interpretation by those who would want to abuse them to attack individual liberties.

This isn’t over yet however; there are many other police forces in the rest of the country and also quasi-police (community support officers, town centre managers etc.) as well as private security, who need to recognise that the public have a right to take photographs in public, and should not be harassed, assaulted or threatened with some non-existent sanction for a perfectly legal pastime.

CONTEST 2: so where do I sign up?

One massively important development back home in Airstrip One, that I somehow missed, as I am here in Brazil, was the announcement of (now officially the worst ever) Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith’s only personal Stasi – sorry, it was just terrorism preparedness training for thousands of workers. It’s easy to get confused especially as this all comes as part of a package of measures designed to counter Islamic radicalism through state propaganda. It’s all part of CONTEST 2, the sequel to the CONTEST strategy that we criticised in our recent book on urban resilience as threatening to turn all British citizens into paranoid spies – for more ridiculous rhetoric along these lines, see the Metropolitan Police poster campaigns. It’s also part of long tradition of volunteerism in British civil defence that goes back to WW2 and even before, and encompasses all that ridiculous advice on hiding behind your sofa in the event of a nuclear attack.

Backing the plan are odd individuals like Maajid Nawaz, who is a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist Islamic group, who seems to have swapped one extremism for another in his support of the British government’s authoritarian stance, in his leadership of the Quilliam Foundation. However, the Conservative Party despite their liberal words on ID cards, actually want to go further than Labour. They claim that we are ‘soft targets’ and that ‘whole community needs to be involved in tackling the danger’. They argue that this would be learning the lessons of Mumbai, but it is quite clear that Mumbai was an attack planned in one country against another, not a homegrown assault, so it seems that they are simply trying to scare us into thinking that we need more McCarthyite tactics.

My first thought about the new terrorism preaparedness training was ‘so where do I sign up? Perhaps the best thing for all critical and progressive people to do would be to sign up and do exactly the opposite of what they want… not that I would ever suggest such a subversive strategy.