UK ID Card Program scrapped after election (and more)

As both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats in the UK had the scrapping of the National Identity Card card scheme as part of their manifesto, the unpopular program has been suspended immediately by the new coalition government, pending further announcements.

The full statement reads as follows:

“Both Parties that now form the new Government stated in their manifestos that they will cancel Identity Cards and the National Identity Register. We will announce in due course how this will be achieved. Applications can continue to be made for ID cards but we would advise anyone thinking of applying to wait for further announcements.

Until Parliament agrees otherwise, identity cards remain valid and as such can still be used as an identity document and for travel within Europe. We will update you with further information as soon as we have it.”

But although the cards will almost certainly go, despite the statement it is unclear yet what will be the fate of the National Identity Register (NIR), the new central database at the heart of the scheme. Neither party, and the Tories especially, said anything specific in their manifestos about scrapping the database, so we will see what happens here – although the statement issued seems categorical about this too. Although the end of the card scheme reduces opportunities for the ‘papers, please’ style abuse of minorities, it is the database that is of biggest concern to those interested in surveillance and social sorting. I have long favoured a secure central government Information Clearinghouse, which whilst transferring necessary information as needed and consented to between different parts of government, would not in itself hold any data. I suspect however, that some fudge will emerge!

In the meantime, the price of the coalition also was reported to include new legislation regulating video surveillance (CCTV) cameras (only about 20 years too late, but that’s the speed of British politics for you), and the review of many of the new powers in the (Anti-)Terrorism and Civil Contingencies Acts (and perhaps the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act too – though it hasn’t yet been mentioned specifically). It is very rare that legislation is repealed or rolled back but we may yet see an increase in civil liberties under the new coalition. The one big worry in this are though is the Conservative opposition to the Human Rights Act – however with their Liberal Democrat partners being committed to the HRA, I can’t see any moves to repeal the act in this Parliament.

I am cautiously optimistic…

Arrests for taking pictures continue in the UK

Despite repeated government and police assurances that it would not be happening any more, ordinary people are still being arrested for taking pictures in the UK, under the pernicious terms of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, and not just in London. This time, a photographer video camera user managed to film the process of his arrest. There particularly ridiculous aspects of this case are firstly that the officer, when challenged on his assertion that this was a terrorism-related offence, changed her charge to that of anti-social behaviour (which isn’t a crime as such, anyway), and secondly that the first officer was not even a proper police officer, but a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO) AKA ‘plastic police’. PCSOs do not have the training or powers of the regular police but they are increasingly acting as if they do, and since they look almost identical to the untrained eye, they frequently get away with it. They shouldn’t: PCSOs need to be more clearly trained as to the legal and moral limitations of their role.

The second time he was stopped, it was by a police officer who had been informed by the PCSO, however the police officer too was unable to give reasons as to why they wanted the details of the photographer. They seemed to think that just because the officer was suspicious that was enough, whereas in law they must have a ‘reasonable’ suspicion. There were no such grounds. The officer refused to give reasonable grounds other than the fact they were taking pictures and refused to say whether they were being arrested. So they left, but they were later arrested by another officer for ‘anti-social behaviour’ (which is not a crime, and certainly taking pictures is not inherently ‘anti-social’ – or if it was, then the state’s CCTV systems would be equally ‘anti-social’). This seemed to have nothing more than a matter of the officers being annoyed by the fact that they challenged the officers. The police need to remember that they serve the public and are not there to tell the public what to do when they are doing nothing unlawful.

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.

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.