London Riots and Video Surveillance, Pt.2

My last post was about the lack of any apparent deterrence of rioting from CCTV. However that’s not to say that video surveillance is proving of no use to the authorities. However the way it is being used says a lot about both the limits of CCTV and the general problem of analysis of video images.

As part of ‘Operation Withern’, the investigation into the rioting, the Metropolitan Police have set up a special section of their website, London Disorder Images, as well as on Flickr, which is essentially crowdsourcing the identification of suspects. Despite being the most well-resourced police force in the UK, the Met lacks the resources, time and expertise to analyse and identify everyone it wishes to identify itself, and with widespread popular anger about the riots, they are banking on opening up the process of surveillance and identification as being more efficient and effective – and they may well be right.

Of course, with the problems of lighting, angle, distances, and image quality, the images vary in identifiability – and bear in mind that the few posted so far are probably amongst the best ones – and no doubt there will be many misidentifications. And, in addition, hundreds of people are already being processed through magistrates courts without much need to video evidence. But it is a tactic we are seeing more and more in many places (e.g. Toronto, following the G20 disturbances).

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.

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.

Court rules against police precautionary surveillance

In another chapter in the current struggle over the means of visual representation, the UK Court of Appeal has made an important ruling that could affect the future of police surveillance tactics. In a case brought by anti-arms trade protestor, Andrew Wood (no relation!), the judges ruled that the Metropolitan Police should destroy photographs taken of Mr Wood at the AGM of giant dataveillance conglomerate, Reed Elsevier ( the BBC calls them a ‘publisher’ but that’s a rather archaic and inaccurate term for what Reed Elsevier does, which is to collect, analyse, organise and trade in personal and business data of all kinds).  Reed Elsevier had been involved with running arms trade exhibitions through a subsidiary at the time.

The ruling argued that the police should not take and retain pictures of people who were not suspected of any current wrongdoing, but whom the police considered might do so in the future. According to the BBC, the Met had argued that its actions “were reasonable in helping officers to detect crimes that may have occurred in the past or may do so in the future.” But that is exactly the kind of blanket risk-management-based way of thinking that allows almost any preemptive or precautionary mass surveillance to be justified, and it is quite right that the Court should have ruled that it should be controlled. It is about time that a ruling like this was made.

The one cautionary note here is that the Met will be appealing this to the House of Lords, and no doubt beyond if that fails, so watch this space…

The War on Photographers (continued…)

In the latest dispatch in the British state’s ongoing war on photographers (or was that supposed to be terrorists?), a father and son from Austria have been ‘ordered’ by two policemen to delete pictures of bus and tube stations from their digital camera. Klaus and Loris Matzka were told that it was ‘strictly forbidden’ to take such pictures and the police took their personal details including passport numbers and the addresses of the hotel where they were staying.

This is harassment and intimidation, pure and simple.  Later The Guardian quotes the Metropolitan Police as sating that they “had no knowledge of any ban on photographing public transport in the capital.” This is a curious way to put it. It is not a question of the police’s knowledge of a ban. There is no ban. The police are well aware of this.

The Met in particular, are currently way out at the edge of their powers and pushing the envelope rather too far, but it seems with relative impunity. As I have written before, they seem to think it is suspicious to be interested in CCTV. It is also apparently suspicious (if not ‘strictly forbidden’) to take pictures of almost anything. But there’s much more. This is also the same force that invaded Parliament mob-handed to arrest Conservative MP, Damien Green, for it now seems, entirely political reasons. This is the same force whose officers have been captured on camera beating protestors – and who may have caused a passer-by to die of a heart-attack. This is the same force that keeps tabs on law-abiding protestors nationwide in case they might break the law, and that provides offices to private organisations running their own intelligence operations (ACPO). And, let us not forget, this is the same force whose incompetent surveillance operation resulted in the shooting of an innocent Brazilian man in the mistaken belief that he was a terrorist.

The Metropolitan Police needs to have a serious lesson in the liberties that they are supposed to be protecting, not restricting. Rather than learning the lessons of inquiry after inquiry, officers (and whether it is more than indvidual officers, one cannot say) appear to be out of control and making de facto policy by intimidation. Surely, this cannot be allowed to continue?