Archive Page 2

Spy on your neighbour

I love this. If you think your neighbour is too well turned out (and live in Sussex) you can telephone Sussex police as part of their new initiative, 2 Much Bling? Give us a ring.



A little while ago Justice Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court, discussing privacy issues, said he didn’t care what people found out about him on the internet.

Professor Joel Reidenberg set his students the task of finding everything that was publicly available about Scalia. The result was a 15 page dossier which included Scalia’s dietary preferences, his favourite movies and photographs of his grandchildren. In response, Scalia stood by his opinion and questioned Prof Reidenberg’s judgement. This is the Professor’s response:

I’m surprised by Justice Scalia’s characterization of the project. The scope of protection for privacy in our society is at the forefront of the public policy debate. I assign this research project annually and last year used myself as itssubject. The exercise never fails to provide a keen demonstration for my students of the privacy issues associated with aggregating discrete bits of otherwise innocuous personal information.

When there are so few privacy protections for secondary use of personal information, that information can be used in many troubling ways. A class assignment that illustrates this point is not one of them. Indeed, the very fact that Justice Scalia found it objectionable and felt compelled to comment underscores the value and legitimacy of the exercise.

Read more about it here.

42 days?

Since 2001 1,471 people have been arrested under anti-terror laws.

          Of whom 642  (44.32%) were charged with an offence or dealt with in another way (eg deportation, caution or detained under the Mental Health Act)        

     521 were charged with an offence  (35.4%)

                     Of whom 222 were charged with a offence under specific anti-terror laws    (15% of total arrested;  42.6% of those charged)              

                               Of whom 102 were convicted  (7% of those arrested; 19.6% of those charged with any offence and 46% of those charged with a specific terrorist offence).

     Out of the 521 charged,  118  were charged with terrorist related offences   

                                Of whom 94 were convicted

= 340 charged with terrorism and terrorist related offences (23% of those arrested), of whom  196 were convicted (13.3% of those arrested, 37.6% of those charged with any offence)

A further 181 were charged with separate offences

Time in custody:

Just under 50% of those arrested were released within 24 hrs

66% were released under two days

6 people were questioned for the maximum 28 days the law allows, of whom 3were released without charge. None of these occured in 2008, when the government tried to extend the maximum to 42 days.

See the Home Office statistics and tables here.

Note: figures are from 2001 – March 2008 and do not include those convicted for the airline bomb plots.

Liberty and the 1970s

The first part of my discussion with Andy Beckett (author of the brilliant new When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies)

The law and the right to protest

Diane Abbott MP made a good point in a Westminster Hall debate yesterday:

Section 50 of the Police Reform Act 2002 allows the police to demand the name and address of anyone whom they believe has acted in an antisocial manner. Failure to provide that information is a criminal offence. It is therefore a criminal offence to fail to give a name and address when stopped on mere suspicion of committing a non-criminal act, but it is not a criminal offence to fail to give that information when suspected of a criminal offence. In other words, the legislation imposes a more onerous regime on protesters than exists for people who are suspected of criminal acts.

Shequotes Shami Chakrabarti:

Few would argue against proportionate interferences with that right to protect people and property. Yet the past 15 years have so blurred the lines between civil, public order and anti-terror powers that we risk turning constables (whose traditional role was to keep the peace) into bouncers charged with shutting down demonstrations.

Protest has never been very easy in Britain. During the 1930s (when protests were becoming more common) the police used a number of acts to prevent protest, including the Seditious Meeting Act (1817) and the Six Acts (1819). Protesters were arrested for incitement to ’cause discontent, dissatisfaction and ill-will between different classes of His Majesty’s subjects’ – ie sedition. Meetings were illegal if they blocked the streets, infringed bylaws, if a constable believed a breach of the peace was likely’, or if a person of ‘reasonable firmness and courage’ was alarmed. By a law of 1816 it was illegal to protest within one mile of parliament.

Most notorious was the case of Katherine Duncan, which showed that statute law was not even needed to halt a protest. Duncan addressed people an unemployed training centre in South London. She had previously been arrested for impeding the highway, so she held her next address in a side alley not used by vehicles or pedestrians. She was arrested before she could speak and fined £2 and five guineas in costs. At appeal the sentence was upheld by Hewart LCJ on the grounds that if she spoke it could lead to a breach of the peace. In other words it was left to a constable to decide whether Mrs Duncan’s words might make a hungry unemployed person unhappy; and whether that unhappy person might, at some unspecified date, commit a breach of the peace.

Any political act in public could, in theory, fall within the law. At times in British history these laws – what Ivor Jennings called the ‘relics of feudal anarchy and of anti-revolutionary reaction’ – were forgotten and not enforced. There were long periods when wide latitude was given to protesters. At times, however, they were dusted down and used again or updated. The Public Order Act (1986) placed further conditions on protesters and gave police wider powers. Various anti-terror acts have also been used to stifle protest and even the reporting of events.

It has never been easy to protest in Britain. History has shown that, if it wants to, the state can use a variety of techniques to crack down. Most worrying is the wide discretion given by these acts to police constables. It is not fair on them and it is not fair on those who are moved to protest. Laws, new equipment and overheated rhetoric have all given the impression that protest or signals of dissent are grave social menaces. That happened in the 1930s and it has been going on again since the 1980s.

Why, in the 21st century, are we so scared of citizen action? We have constructed draconian laws even at a time when interest in politics is waning. In British history liberty has often been won not by reform but when laws and practises fall quietly into disuse. It is the reluctance of people in authority to use the laws and equipment at their disposal which gives room for freedom. At times in our past the sight of policemen stretching their authority and politicians using the spectre of disorder for their own ends offended the national sentiment. We need a revival of that spirit of freedom.

Database state

The government’s fascination with the use of data pre-dates Tony Blair’s arrival in Downing Street. Indeed, its quest for streamlined, efficient government has far outweighed any countervailing arguments for liberty or privacy. Indeed, dazzled by technological revolution, ministers have seen the claims of liberty and privacy as hopelessly outdated and barriers to good government. As Blair said of ID cards and the challenges of global terrorism and anti-social behaviour:

For me, this is not an issue of liberty but of modernity.

And for his successors, modernity always trumps and inconvenient and complex subjects such as liberty. Of course they are, as they assure us, fans of liberty and so on. But to encourage worthwhile debate or measure their policies against it … forget about it.

Most worrying, faith in government by database has also, as Jenni Russell argues, become a substitute for real reforms. 

If you want to see how much the state has on you, check out this excellent website.

May madness

Another extraordinary week for civil liberties in Britain. The Home Secretary’s bizarre list of people she has banned from entering the country is just another example of the government’s unblushing and unapologetic authoritarianism. Justifying banning people we have never heard of, Jacqui Smith said with her accustomed clarity:

“I think it’s important that people understand the sorts of values and sorts of standards that we have here, the fact that it’s a privilege to come and the sort of things that mean you won’t be welcome in this country.”

Smith has talked before about British values. But it is becoming harder to see what those values are. There has hardly been any serious attempt to articulate what liberty means in modern Britain, for instance. Instead we have a list of sixteen people who might possibly offend someone and whip up ‘inter-community tension’. There is no doubt that most of the people on the list are loathsome individuals. Once again we have a minister deciding in advance who is likely to upset the British and making personal judgements about the ‘values and standards’ we share. Is it up to her? Without this ludicrous intervention I doubt anyone would have heard of these idiots, particularly the acrid radio DJ whom everyone now knows. And if they managed to distract us with their hateful opinions I’m sure most adults can make their own judgement and make their feelings known. If people want to come here and say outrageous things the law can deal with them when they have actually committed a crime. Like so many other government efforts, this seems to be concerned primarily with ‘sending a message’.

But what kind of message? That we are not really trusted. That free expression is negotiable. It seems that civil society is in such poor shape and communities so fragile that we need to be monitored and protected by people who know better. As with the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006), the Danish cartoon row and other examples, the government seems incapable of standing up for free expression. Indeed, mad views are held up as being a threat to order as if these obscure people have the power to rend the fabric of society. Cowards die many times before their death.

 Is it any wonder that some people are demanding special protections and exemptions when the government seems quite prepared to meddle and tinker in a sporadic manner? Liberties are won and maintained by contests and debates within society. This doesn’t really work when the state abandons its neutrality and tries to micromanage the debate. When we try and talk about freedom of expression we will be met by accusations of hypocrisy thanks to the nervous tinkering of the state.

The government’s desire to keep an eye on us was evident in other news stories. It refused to comply with a directive from the European court which said it should destroy the massive database of DNA samples of innocent people. There is an excellent piece by Shami Chakrabarti in today’s Telegraph. See also an editorial in today’s Independent and yesterday’s Guardian.

Even less welcome was the announcement that people in Manchester can apply for ID cards as part of a pilot scheme from this autumn. Electronic scans and fingerprints will be taken in chemists and shops such as Snappy Snaps. With any luck the next government will drop ID cards. But not after a colossal waste of public money.

The good news is that the Met Police is scaling back its stop and searches under the Terrorism Act. As with many other anti-terror laws this power quickly became a matter of routine policing: 72,000 stop and searches were carried out in 2007 and 170,000 in 2008.

Related to this story is the news that the National Police Improvement Agency has issued written guidance which makes it clear the police should not use anti-terror laws to prevent people taking photographs. The abuse of this power had become quite notorious, especially when two tourists had their photos deleted for taking pictures of Walthamstow bus station.

The sad thing about all this that proper debate about security, terrorism and civil liberties is obscured when the government is seen to be so blundering and instinctively authoritarian. News stories such as these only show the government to be overly controlling and either ignorant or careless about the tradition of civil liberties. We are bound by petty rules. The mentality that we must wage war on crime and terror and antisocial behaviour at any cost and without reference to principles of liberty is making this an uncomfortable country in which to live. That reputation is now being broadcast to the world.