What now for the UK’s anti-terrorism laws?

On the 12th of January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in the case of Gillan and Quinton v. the United Kingdom, that UK police powers to randomly stop and search people under Sections 44-47 of The Terrorism Act (2000) were unlawful. This is the third recent ruling by the ECHR against the current direction of the UK’s security policies (after the ruling in S. and Marper v. the UK, against the police retaining DNA profiles and fingerprints from people not convicted of any offence). It also follows the furore over the London Metropolitan Police’s interpretation of Sections 43, 44 and 58s of The Terrorism Act in relation to public photography.* The case was brought by two people, Pennie Quinton a journalist who was on her way to cover a demonstration against an arms fair in London in September 2003,, and Kevin Gillan, who was cycling past.

Section 44 allows the police to stop and search anyone on the basis of a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they may be in posssession of information or items that may be useful in committing an act of terrorism. The case in the ECHR was on several principles, most of which were rejected, but most importantly the Court found that arbitrary stop and search dis violate Article 8 of the European Convention, on the right to privacy. This was because “the use of the coercive powers conferred by the legislation to require an individual to submit to a detailed search of his person, his clothing and his personal belongings amounts to a clear interference with the right to respect for private life”.

Furthermore the UK government once again argued, as it did equally unsuccessfully in the case of Peck v. UK back in 2003, that Article 8 did not apply as there was no right privacy in public places. This argument, the Court not only rejected but actually argued that the publicness of the stop and search made the violation of privacy worse:

“Although the search is undertaken in a public place, this does not mean that Article 8 is inapplicable. Indeed, in the Court’s view, the public nature of the search may, in certain cases, compound the seriousness of the interference because of an element of humiliation and embarrassment. Items such as bags, wallets, notebooks and diaries may, moreover, contain personal information which the owner may feel uncomfortable about having exposed to the view of his companions or the wider public.”

This was a well-thought out ruling which made the arguments pretty clear. However the response of the UK government, as in the DNA case, leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it has basically said, “make me”! The government intends to ignore the ruling in everyday practice, as it did with Peck, and will continue to allow police to carry out such searches whilst it appeals the case. This also means that there will be no disciplinary action against any officer who follows this policy, despite its now being unlawful.

*This of course is by no means over either, and there will be a mass photography action, “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist!”, on January 23rd at 12 Noon, Trafalgar Square in London.

British cops still haven’t got the message about photography

There is a disturbing film and story on The Guardian site which shows two London Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) hassling an Italian art student, Simona Bonomo, largely, it seems to me, because she wasn’t submissive towards them and stood up for herself. This comes several months after the Home Office issued new guidelines, yet it looks like photography and filming is still being treated as if it is inherently suspicious – as Marc Vallée points out.

The additional issue is that PCSOs are not even proper trained police officers in the first place, yet they increasingly seem to be under the impression that they can make the kind of judgements that senior police officers should be making. There need to be some changes to UK law here (amongst many of course!) – one to replace Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, since it seems clear that it can’t be interpreted appropriately, and secondly, the powers of PCSOs need to more carefully delineated and restricted.

For those involved in photography, video or film-making, in the UK or nearby, there will be a mass photography action, “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist!”, on January 23rd at 12 Noon, Trafalgar Square in London.

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.

UK police spying on activists… again

The Met are unlikely to care. They are not generally known for their respect for the political rights of British citizens…

The Guardian has posted another worrying story (and an interesting video) on the routine police surveillance of environmental activists, most of whom have no connection to any criminal behaviour. The Metropolitan police, who have always been in the forefront of efforts to try to portray political activists as actual or potential criminals, is collecting storing and sharing information, including many private personal details, on activists using Crimint, the national criminal intelligence system. The data includes activists “seen on a regular basis” as well as less frequent activists, regardless of arrests or convictions, their names, political associations and photographs. This information is being shared between police forces to build up more complete portraits of political activity nationwide.

The human rights group, Liberty, is challenging this data collection and sharing on the grounds that it breaches Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. My view is that it almost certainly does, and that the Met are unlikely to care. They are not generally known for their respect for the political rights of British citizens indeed one of their original purposes was to crack down on political dissent back in the Nineteenth Century and they have always maintained this role. They operate the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) which is also involve in spreading disinformation on political activists and their HQ at New Scotland Yard will apparently host the new privately-run ACPO Confidential Intelligence Unit (CIU).

I have had my own personal experience of the Met’s way of dealing with activists and it is certainly not in any way respectful of anyone’s rights. It urgently needs to be brought under some proper control and accountability, and hopefully being found guilty of breaching Article 8 of the ECHR, if it happens, will be a good start.